DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrians in government-controlled areas cast ballots Wednesday for a new 250-member parliament that is expected to serve as a rubber stamp for President Bashar Assad in a vote which Western leaders and members of Syria’s opposition have denounced as a sham and a provocation that undermines the Geneva peace talks.
The negotiations on resolving Syria’s five-year civil war were to resume later Wednesday in the Swiss city, with government representatives delayed on account of the elections and the U.N. envoy due to meet with the opposition team.
Assad’s main ally, Russia, welcomed the vote, saying it is necessary to prevent “a power vacuum” in the country until a new constitution and elections are agreed upon in the ongoing peace talks. After casting his vote, Assad said the vote is to defy terrorists — the term he usually uses to describe all of Syria’s opposition.
Britain said Damascus’ decision to go ahead with the elections in the war-torn nation, where hundreds of thousands cannot take part, shows “how divorced (the government) is from reality.”
Parliamentary elections in Syria are held every four years, and Damascus says the vote is constitutional and separate from the Geneva talks.
But the opposition says the voting contributes to an unfavorable climate for negotiations amid fierce fighting that threatens an increasingly tenuous cease-fire engineered by the United States and Russia.
Voters began turning up shortly after the stations opened at 7 a.m. Around 3,500 government-approved candidates are competing after more than 7,000 others dropped out.
Assad and his wife, Asma, cast their ballots at the Assad Library in Damascus.
“This war is not only about terrorism,” Assad told a state TV reporter. “It is true that terrorism managed to destroy much of the infrastructure and it managed to shed lots of blood, but it failed to realize the main goal, which is to strike at the main infrastructure in Syria, the social infrastructure and the national identity.”
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said after voting that “we in Syria always say that the Syrian people decide their destiny and today they are proving practically the accuracy of this saying.”
The British government said the elections are not in line with a U.N. Security Council resolution which envisages elections in Syria after an 18-month transitional process. The U.K. statement said the elections “cannot buy back legitimacy by putting up a flimsy facade of democracy.”
It noted that hundreds of thousands of people live in besieged towns and cities in Syria, and millions have fled their homes — many into exile — and thus cannot vote.
Britain also urged “the regime’s backers, especially Russia” to pressure Syria’s government to engage in discussion about political transition in U.N.-sponsored peace talks.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the peace talks should lead to an agreement on the country’s new constitution and new elections. But he said Wednesday’s vote was necessary to prevent a “vacuum of power” in Syria.
Russia has been a crucial ally Assad’s government throughout the conflict and has launched an air campaign against insurgents in September.
In the Syrian capital, voters said they fully supported holding the elections.
“My vote is like a bullet to our enemies. I am here to continue the ongoing resistance since five years. I am here to support the Syrian Arab Army,” said 18-year high school student Yazan Fahes, holding up his ink-stained finger.
“I feel proud today because the elections are a national and democratic duty any honest citizen should practice,” said Wahid Chahine, a 54-year-old government employee, after casting his ballot at a Damascus polling station.
He said the voting is constitutional and should not be postponed, despite millions of other Syrians being unable to take part. “I hope in the next elections all Syrians will be able to vote and that Syria would be free from all terrorists,” he added.
Marah Hammoud, a 21-year-old journalism student from the central city of Homs, said it is important at this particular time in Syria for people to be able to choose their representatives.
“We want elected officials who care about the people, who can help end this war and control prices,” she said. “We live on this hope.”
The balloting, in which soldiers are being allowed to vote for the first time, was taking place only in areas under government control and voting stations have been set up in 12 of Syria’s 14 provinces. The northern province of Raqqa is controlled by the Islamic State group, and the northwestern province of Idlib is controlled by its rival, the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, as well as other insurgent factions. The government has no presence in either province.
Polls were to close at 7 p.m., with the possibility of staying open longer if turnout was high. The results were expected Thursday.
In Turkey, meanwhile, a local news agency said shells fired from Syria hit a southern Turkish area, the fourth such cross-border incident in less than a week.
The private Dogan news agency said the shells struck two areas of the city center of Kilis on Wednesday morning, triggering panic despite landing on empty land and causing no casualties. Turkey routinely retaliates after rockets or shells land on its territory.
Associated Press writer Dominique Soguel in Istanbul, Sarah El Deeb in Cairo and Maeva Bambuck in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.