Vote counting after Syria’s referendum on a new constitution is under way with the results expected on Monday, but Western nations and some of the opposition, which boycotted the exercise, have labelled the vote a sham.
More than 14 million people over the age of 18 were eligible to vote at 13,835 polling stations on Sunday in a ballot that could theoretically end five decades of one-party rule.
But with many parts of the country reeling from weeks of military assault, and army defectors engaged in a guerrilla campaign against loyalist troops, it was unclear how the ballot could prove to be convincing.
Western nations, including Canada and Germany, said the referendum was a farce.
“This is a dubious ploy by the [Bashar al] Assad regime to delay the inevitable while continuing its slaughter of Syrian civilians. Assad’s ‘referendum’ is a farce. It is also too little, too late,” John Baird, the Canadian foreign affairs minister, said in a statement, referring to the president.
“Assad must go. A new day must dawn for the Syrian people,” Baird added.
Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, also called Sunday’s vote “a farce”.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state who called the vote a “cynical ploy”, urged Syrians who still support the president to abandon him.
Al Jazeera’s Nisreen El-Shamayleh, reporting from neighbouring Jordan due to restrictions on foreign media, said she had spoken to Syrian activists who said the shelling of Homs had continued and that they were not interested in the referendum outcome.
European Union foreign ministers, meanwhile, agreed new sanctions against the regime on Monday, which will target the central bank and several cabinet ministers.
The Syrian president had unveiled the proposed new national charter earlier this month in his latest reform pledge since protests erupted last March.
The resulting violence has left more than 7,600 people dead, monitors say. Syria blames the violence on “armed terrorist gangs”.
Assad has promised to hold parliamentary elections within 90 days if voters approve the new constitution. However, the decision to hold the referendum has failed to ease global pressure on his government.
Louay Safi, a leading member of the Syrian National Council, an opposition group, said the new constitution would be “meaningless” in bringing about change because it was being created by a government that continued to violate its own laws in its campaign to crush the uprising.
“The major problem is that the government is violating the current constitution,” Safi told Al Jazeera. “What we fear is if the regime stays intact, the new constitution will be meaningless.
“So the real step to have a new constitution is to have a new or transitional government.”
In Damascus, the Syrian capital, and its suburbs, opposition activists voiced similar scepticism over the vote.
“This was a constitution made to Bashar’s tastes and meanwhile we are getting shelled and killed,” a protester said.
“More than 40 people were killed today and you want us to vote in a referendum? … No one is going to vote.”
However, Adel Safar, the Syrian prime minister, said on Sunday that the opposition’s call for a boycott indicated a lack of interest in dialogue.
“If there was a genuine desire for reform, there would have been movement from all groups, especially the opposition, to
start dialogue immediately with the government to achieve the reforms and implement them on the ground,” he said.
The referendum took place as government security forces shelled residential areas in Bab Amr neighbourhood in the central city of Homs for the 26th day in a row, reportedly killing at least nine people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based opposition group.
The group said that rebel soldiers had also killed at least four government troops in the city.
The SOHR said that eight civilians and 10 members of the government’s security forces were killed elsewhere in the country, bringing the total death toll for Sunday to 31.
Intense violence was reported in the province of Deraa, where the uprising first began last March.
The charter, framed by a committee of 29 people appointed by Assad, would drop the highly controversial Article 8 in the existing charter, which makes the Baath party “the head of state and society”.
That would effectively end the monopoly on power the Baathists have enjoyed since they seized power in a 1963 coup that brought Assad’s late father, Hafez, to power.
Instead, the new political system would be based on “pluralism,” although it would ban the formation of parties on religious lines.
Under the new charter, the president would maintain his grip on broad powers, as he would still name the prime minister and government and, in some cases, could veto legislation.
Article 88 states that the president can be elected for two seven-year terms, but Article 155 says these conditions only take effect after the next election for a head of state, set for 2014.
This means that Assad could theoretically stay at the helm for another 16 years.
This is Syria’s third referendum since Assad inherited power from his late father. The first installed him as president in
2000 with an official 97.2 per cent in favour. The second renewed his term seven years later with 97.6 per cent in favour.