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syria presidential election

Syrians are voting in the country’s presidential elections amid heightened security.

The poll takes place three years into a civil war in which tens of thousands of people have died and millions more are displaced.

President Bashar al-Assad is widely expected to win a third seven-year term in office.

However, critics of the Syrian government have denounced the election as a sham.

Analysts say Syrian officials have gone to great lengths to present the vote as a way to resolve the crisis.

It is the first time in decades that more than one name has appeared on the ballot paper.

Hassan al-Nouri and Maher Hajjar are not widely known and have been unable to campaign on an equal footing with President Bashar al-Assad

Hassan al-Nouri and Maher Hajjar are not widely known and have been unable to campaign on an equal footing with President Bashar al-Assad

Correspondents say the other two candidates – Maher Hajjar and Hassan al-Nouri – are not widely known and have been unable to campaign on an equal footing with President Bashar al-Assad.

Previous presidential terms have been called through a referendum with just one member of the Assad family on the ballot paper.

Campaigning officially ended on Monday and workers across central Damascus removed banners, posters and pictures of the candidates.

PM Wael al-Halqi said the election was a “historic day” for Syria and that a large turnout would “prove to the entire world that the Syrian people have decided and are determined to make the electoral process a success”.

He urged Syrians to elect a president who would “achieve security and stability in the country… and step up the achievement of national reconciliation”.

The interior ministry says there are 15.8 million eligible voters, both inside and outside Syria, and about 9,600 polling stations have been set up around the country.

However, voting will only take place in government-held territory, with many parts of the country either under rebel control or in areas being fought over.

Opposition fighters have warned they will try to disrupt the vote and the Syrian National Coalition – the main Western-backed opposition group – is boycotting it.

Coalition leader Ahmad al-Jarba described the election as “theatre written with the blood of Syrians”.

He accused President Bashar al-Assad of planning to bomb and shell polling stations in order to blame the opposition.

Polling stations opened at 07:00 local time and close 12 hours later, although officials said voting could be extended for five hours if there is a big turnout.

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The Syrian plan to hold a presidential election on June 3 has been dismissed by the US as a “parody of democracy”.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon also condemned the plan, saying it could torpedo efforts to broker a deal to end the three-year civil war, which has killed 150,000.

Syrian government forces have made gains recently, but rebels still control vast territories. It is unlikely that voting would be held in those areas.

President Bashar al-Assad is expected to seek a third seven-year term.

The government recently framed an election law that stipulated all candidates must have lived in Syria for the past 10 years.

Most opposition leaders have fled the country, so are in effect barred from standing.

Syrian parliament announced the presidential election will be held on June 3

Syrian parliament announced the presidential election will be held on June 3 (photo Reuters)

Opposition activist Ahmad Alqusair accused Bashar al-Assad of “holding elections over the blood of Syrians” and said only the president’s supporters would vote.

“If we are being blockaded from even eating bread, how can I vote,” he told the Associated Press.

One government lawmaker said there would be no voting in rebel-held areas, but no official announcement has yet been made.

The US, EU and UN were united in condemning the planned vote.

“Calling for a de-facto referendum rings especially hollow now as the regime continues to massacre the very electorate it purports to represent,” said state department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki.

Ban Ki-moon warned that it would “damage the political process and hamper the prospects for a political solution”.

And both the EU and the US labeled it a “parody of democracy”.

Parliamentary speaker Mohammed al-Lahham announced the election, and said overseas Syrians would be able to vote from May 28.

It is unclear how the government plans to organize voting in contested areas, or how the six million people who have fled their homes could register.

Also, more than 2.7 million Syrians are living as refugees in neighboring countries, and many other expatriates live in countries where Syrian embassies have been closed since 2011.

The announcement came just hours after mortar shells exploded about 300ft from the parliament building in central Damascus, killing five people, according to state TV.

President Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad in 2000 and was re-elected in 2007, taking 98% of the vote in a referendum.

He has not said publicly whether he will stand, however, no-one doubts that he will seek a third term.

Amendments to the constitution approved in a widely criticized referendum in 2012 mean that there can be multiple candidates in the election.

However, it is unlikely that anyone will seriously challenge Bashar al-Assad.

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