War-torn Syria on Wednesday extended voting hours in a presidential election criticized internationally, but which is nevertheless set to seal a fourth term in office for longtime leader Bashar Assad.
The polls, taking place in government-held areas of the country, were originally scheduled to close at 7 p.m. after 12 hours of voting.
But the electoral commission extended the vote by five more hours at all polling stations due to high turnout, Syria’s state news agency SANA reported.
The commission said it had not recorded any violations or problems in the voting process.
Scores of people were seen on state-run Syrian television standing in long queues at polls, which opened at 7 a.m.
“We are proud today to come and take part in this election as it is our national duty,” a woman told Syrian television in Aleppo, the second-largest city in Syria.
The broadcaster also showed some loyalists dancing and waving the Syrian flag, as well as photographs of Assad displayed outside polling stations in various areas in Damascus and Sweida, in southwestern Syria.
Assad cast his ballot in Douma, a former rebel stronghold on the outskirts of the capital, Syrian state television reported.
Douma is part of the eastern Ghouta region, where a suspected chemical attack took place in 2018 and was blamed on the Syrian government.
“Douma’s visit and the election provide confirmation that Syria is not a region against a region or a sect against a sect,” Assad was quoted as telling Syrian television.
Assad, 55, is facing few serious rivals and is virtually certain to win in the one-day vote.
Syrian Information Minister Imad Sarah described the turnout “as very high,” without giving specific figures.
Meanwhile, in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in northwestern Syria, hundreds of people on Wednesday protested against the presidential vote, calling it “mockery and comedy.”
The demonstrators chanted slogans against Assad, reiterated their support for the Syrian revolution and called for freedom and unity against “the killer regime of Bashar al-Assad,” activists said.
On the eve of the vote, the secretary of state of the United States, the foreign secretary of Britain, and the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Italy issued a joint statement of condemnation against the “fraudulent election.”
The five nations said they “support the voices of all Syrians, including civil society organizations and the Syrian opposition, who have condemned the electoral process as illegitimate.”
More than 18 million Syrians are eligible to vote in and outside the country, Syrian Interior Minister Mohammed al Rahmoun said.
He added that a total of 12,102 polling stations were set up.
Wednesday’s presidential election is the second since the uprising started in 2011.
Syria’s conflict has left some 400,000 people dead and displaced more than half the country’s pre-war population of 22.4 million, according to U.N. estimates.
With the help of Iran and Russia, Assad is back in control of more than 60% of the country. The rebels still hold some areas in north and northwestern Syria, while Kurds rule areas in the northeast.
Syria’s Supreme Constitutional Court approved three candidates to run in the presidential race, including Assad.
The two others are Abdullah Salloum, an ex-government minister, and Mahmoud Marai, an opposition figure opposition tolerated by the regime and living in Damascus.