Syrians began voting Sunday on a new draft constitution aimed at quelling the country’s uprising by ending the ruling Baath Party’s five-decade domination of power, but the opposition announced a boycott and clashes were reported across the country.
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and the vote is scheduled to last 12 hours. The country has 14.6 million eligible voters who were asked to cast ballots on whether they approve or reject the recently drafted constitution in more than 14,000 polling stations around the country.
The ballot reads, “Do you agree on the new draft constitution?” Marking a green circle indicates yes, while black is no.
In regions like the restive central city of Homs, where shelling by government forces has left hundreds dead, or the northwestern province of Idlib and the southern region of Daraa where rebels clash frequently with the security forces, turnout is likely to be minimal.
Foreign journalists were taken by the Information Ministry to the Damascus neighborhood of Rukneddine and the Damascus suburb of Barzeh that witnessed anti-government protests in the past months. Few voters were at the polling stations in either area.
Earlier this month, President Bashar Assad called for a referendum on the new constitution — which allows for at least a theoretical opening of the country’s political system — as an effort to placate critics and end the 11-month uprising against his rule.
The new charter would create a multiparty system in Syria, which has been ruled by the Arab Socialist Baath Party since a 1963 coup. It also states that the president, who has been a member of the Assad family since 1970, can only be in office for a maximum of two seven-year terms.
Such changes were unthinkable a year ago, but after the uprising began in March and Assad’s crackdown that killed thousands of people, the vast majority of opposition groups say they accept nothing less than Assad abandoning power.
The two main umbrella opposition groups, the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, have called for a boycott. Some groups have also called for a general strike to coincide with the referendum.
“I am boycotting the vote,” Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso told The Associated Press by telephone. He added that in Syria such laws have no value — Assad’s government revoked the country’s official state of emergency in April but the crackdown only intensified.
In the capital Damascus, where Assad retains support among religious minorities and the business class, many said they were eager to vote.
“This is a good constitution. It calls for party pluralism and the president can only hold the post for two terms. These did not exist in the past,” said civil servant Mohammed Diab, 40, as he waited with four other people outside a polling station in the posh Damascus neighborhood of Abu Rummaneh.
Jaafar Naami, 28, who works for a private insurance company, said, “I am here to say yes for the new constitution. This is not the time to say no. People should unite.”
In Barzeh, which recently witnessed intense anti-government protests, about 20 percent of the shops were closed, apparently in compliance with the calls for a strike. Turnout was very low at a polling station in the area, with a person coming every few minutes to cast a ballot.
A man said he came to vote at the school away from the center of the district. In central Barzeh, he said, there was “pressure not to vote … intimidation and calls for public disobedience.” He did not give his name for fear of reprisal.
In Rukneddine, turnout was also low. People cast ballots as they arrived with no need to stand in line.
Rime Hassan, a 24-year-old arts graduate, voted yes without going behind the curtain set up to ensure privacy. “As a young Syrian, this constitution meets my aspirations for a new and modern Syria,” she said.
A Syrian-American voter who only gave her first name, Diana, said after voting yes: “My friends attacked me for voting. They said, ‘Don’t you see people are dying?’ but for me voting is my right. The president is on the right track. When someone hits you, you have to hit back.” She added: “Syria is under attack.”
Another woman refused to talk to the AP because it is an American agency. She attacked U.S. President Barack Obama, who called Friday for Assad’s regime to “move on.” ”Tell Obama I hope he dies, like he is killing Syrian people,” she said.
One woman emerged from the station and said she voted “no” without elaborating, and walked away quickly.
Posters around the capital Damascus urged people to cast ballots. “Don’t turn your back on voting,” one said.
Another — showing the red, black and white Syrian flag — touted the new constitution. “Syria’s constitution: Freedom of belief,” it said, referring to clauses protecting religious minorities.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least nine people were killed Sunday in Homs, and two more died in the southern province of Daraa where the anti-Assad uprising began in March.
The Observatory reported intense clashes between troops and army defectors in the villages of Dael and Hirak in Daraa. The group also said explosions were heard in the village of Khirbet Ghazaleh and Naima as well as the provincial capital, Daraa.
The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, reported violence in several areas including Idlib, Homs, and the eastern province of Deir el-Zour. The LCC said regime forces shelled the northwestern city of Idlib with tanks.
The LCC said 13 people were killed Sunday in Syria, 11 of them in Homs.