Syria’s election is a party for Assad but opposition head says he has a shot

Mahmoud Marei has been called a government stand-in but he insists he can change Syria from within

In the sea of posters for President Bashar Al Assad on the walls of Damascus streets ahead of Wednesday's election was a solitary billboard for Mahmoud Marei, a man who says he has a real chance of unseating the incumbent and ending a five-decade dynasty.

The last two weeks have been more of a celebration than an election

Mr Marei's campaign has been low-key by any standard but it was dwarfed by the pervasive Baath party operation led by the Al Assad family in the run-up to an election that western governments say is certainly rigged and little more than a pledge of loyalty to the embattled Syrian leader.

But the former Syrian jail inmate and member of the UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva insists that he is the leader of the first viable opposition to contest the presidential election in a country with little free speech.

"For the first time the domestic opposition participates in the elections and has a manifesto," he told The National from his near-empty campaign headquarters on bustling Arnous Square in central Damascus in the final days of the campaign.

The president’s critics in exile brand men like Mr Marei as fake stand-ins for a real opposition and an extension of the regime. He counters by saying his credibility stems from the fact that he is speaking from within Mr Assad’s Syria.

“The real opposition knows who I am, I was a political detainee for six years, I've been banned from travelling in Syria for five years. I have been an opponent of the regime for 45 years, I’ve been through prison and jail cells, I even spent time in solitary confinement,” he said.

Mr Marei may be tolerated officially, but he faces a torrent of abuse from government supporters on social media. They posted images of the candidate with the hashtag "we are continuing without you" and mocking his slogans of "Yes for freeing all political detainees".

He has some defenders online, however, with one activist decrying the abuse of Mr Marei's on Facebook. "Very disgusted by all the people and pages insulting Marei, this person has followers, a family, and children," the activist wrote.

Despite the accusations of being a government plant and the abuse online, Mr Marei speaks frankly about what he sees are the needs and priorities of the Syrian people after more than 10 years of war that started with protests calling for the fall of the Al Assad family's rule.

“How can people want to collapse the regime? It didn’t work. We need to be realistic for the interests of Syria, for the young people who have no work and are living in a bad economic crisis,” he said.

A party for Assad

There is little doubt in Damascus that Mr Al Assad will win by a landslide and secure a fourth consecutive term in the office he took over from his father in 2000.

Beyond the confines of Mr Marei's office, the rest of the capital is in festival-like spirits.

Tents were erected to promote Mr Al Assad and huge loudspeakers play deafening patriotic songs.

“The last two weeks have been more of a celebration than an election, it’s like a national wedding or a holiday,” said university student Ruba Shami. “Some workers and students went to the rallies because they got days off and were given refreshments and could dance. It’s not often we get this – but it’s like a long holiday.”

When asked if she planned to vote and who she would cast a ballot for, Ms Shami hesitated. “I don’t know, we shall see on the day.”

Fares Othman was more forthright.

He works at the Finance Ministry, next to a hot spot for pro- Assad rallies, where music and particular dabke songs praise the president through the day and echo deep into the night.

“We come here, like we did seven years ago, to swear fealty again to our leader. This is our chance to show who we believe in,” Mr Othman said. “The other candidates are very brave, but they have no chance.”

The lead-up to the election was dominated by a relentless election campaign by the president's team with the slogan "work through hope" that sought to portray the 55-year-old Syrian leader as a man of action up to the task of leading for the next seven years.

A nation in ruins

While Mr Al Assad’s victory is in little doubt, the challenges he faces are immense.

Armed factions still control Idlib, the last rebel-held province that is now home to three million people – including more than a million children.

The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that 47 per cent of Syrians lost a close relative in the war with about 62 per cent forced from their homes.

Almost half of the Syrian population have lost their income and 85 per cent are struggling to afford food and basic necessities.

In a pre-election move from the seat of power, Mr Al Assad issued an amnesty waiving punishments for draft dodgers, illegal currency traders and those facing small criminal charges.

Aside from this quick-win pardoning spree, the Syrian government also managed to stabilise Syria’s faltering currency at a preferential rate of 3,100 Syrian pounds to the dollar – down from a record-high of 4,900 Syrian pounds to the dollar before the elections. The move gave a slight reprieve to people suffering from a steady economic decline.

But, the vote will do little to change the view of Mr Al Assad in the West or lead to the removal of sanctions on the regime – the US State Department has already denounced the vote.

“The proposed Syrian presidential election this year will neither be free nor fair,” they said. “In this environment, we do not assess this call for elections to be credible.”

Nicolas de Riviere, the French ambassador to the UN, said that "France will not recognise any validity to the elections planned by the regime at the end of May".

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad responded that "the West is boycotting Syria and imposing economic sanctions on it to push the refugees not to return to Syria".

More than 6.6 million Syrian refugees fled the war to neighbouring states and overseas.

Mr Marei may be an opponent but he agrees with the government that sanctions are a dead end.

“We need to work towards removing sanctions and restoring our resources,” he said.