DAMASCUS Syrians voted in a parliamentary election in government-held areas of the country on Wednesday in what they called a show of support for President Bashar al-Assad, while his opponents and Western powers denounced the poll as illegitimate.
The election went ahead independently of a U.N.-led peace process aimed at ending the five-year-long war. A second round of talks began in Geneva on Wednesday but an upsurge in fighting has darkened the already bleak outlook for diplomacy.
The government said the vote was held to comply with the constitution, a view echoed by its Russian allies.
The opposition, which wants the new peace talks to focus on a political transition, said the election was meaningless, while Britain and France called it a "flimsy facade" and a "sham".
Voters were electing 250 MPs to parliament, which has no real power in Syria's presidential system. The state rallied them with the slogan "Your vote strengthens your steadfastness".
"Assad is already strong but these elections show that the people support him and bolster him," said Hadi Jumaa, a 19-year-old student, as he cast his ballot at his university halls of residence in Damascus.
Dozens queued to vote at one polling station where a portrait of Assad hung on the wall. Outside, some danced.
With his wife Asma at his side as he went to vote in Damascus, a smiling Assad told state TV that terrorism had been able to destroy much of Syria's infrastructure but not Syria's "social structure, the national identity".
Asaad al-Zoubi, chief negotiator for the main opposition body, the High Negotiations Council. dismissed the polls: "They are illegitimate - theatre for the sake of procrastination."
The conflict has killed more than 250,000 people and created millions of refugees, splintering Syria into a patchwork of areas controlled by the government, an array of rebels, a powerful Kurdish militia, and the Islamic State group. The government views all the groups fighting it as terrorists.
The Damascus government controls around one third of Syria, including the main cities in the west, home to the bulk of Syrians who have not fled the country. The United Nations puts the number of Syrian refugees abroad at 5.8 million.
With parliament elected every four years, it is the second parliamentary election held by the government in wartime. Assad was re-elected head of state in a presidential election in 2014.
The government said it would not take part in peace talks until after the election. It is expected to participate from Friday while the opposition delegation met U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura on Wednesday.
De Mistura said senior officials in Moscow, Damascus, Tehran and Amman backed the idea of discussing a political transition but that he wanted to see a renewed pledge to uphold a truce he said had seen serious incidents, but "not a bushfire".
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged all sides to adhere to what the U.N. describes as a "cessation of hostilities".
Agreed in February, the partial truce, which does not include Islamic State or al-Qaeda-linked groups, had helped bring the sides to Geneva.
But fighting south of Aleppo has strained it to breaking point and Damascus had ruled out discussing the presidency ahead of the first round of talks last month.
Each side has blamed the other for ceasefire violations. The head of the opposition delegation said the government had dropped 420 barrel bombs - oil drums packed with explosives - last month alone. The government has denied using such weapons.
Foreign states opposed to Assad said the election was out of line with a U.N. Security Council resolution that calls for elections at the end of an 18-month transition. His allies, notably Russia, said it is in line with the constitution.
"The decision of the regime to hold elections is a measure of how divorced it is from reality. They cannot buy back legitimacy by putting up a flimsy facade of democracy," said a spokesperson for the British government.
France said the elections were a "sham" organised by "an oppressive regime".
Russia, one of Assad's main foreign allies, said however that the election was necessary to avoid a power vacuum.
"There is understanding already that a new constitution should emerge as a result of this political process, on the basis of which new, early elections are to be held," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news briefing.
"But before this happens, one should avoid any legal vacuum or any vacuum in the sphere of executive power."
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said the election showed that "the Syrian people is the one that decides its fate".
Syrians living in opposition-held areas dismissed the vote.
"We used to be forced to cast our vote in sham elections," said Yousef Doumani, speaking from the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area near Damascus. "Now, we are no longer obliged to."
Shereen Sirmani, who fled to Damascus from the Islamic State-besieged city of Deir al-Zor four months ago, said the election was good for Syria.
"We hope they bring people together," she said. "We support Assad and these elections are a boost for him."
(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Tom Perry and Angus McDowall in Beirut, Tom Miles in Geneva and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Tom Perry and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Giles Elgood and Mark Heinrich)
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