Syria says gets 51 percent turnout for parliament vote

DAMASCUS Tue May 15, 2012 11:49am BST

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syria said on Tuesday over half of eligible voters turned out for a parliamentary election central to reforms that it says show President Bashar al-Assad's aim to peacefully resolve an uprising against him, but which opponents dismissed as a farce.

The head of the body that oversaw last week's vote told reporters that 51.26 percent of the electorate, or just over 5 million, took part in an election rejected in advance by opposition leaders as a ruse to buy time to crush dissent.

"The election gave the people the broadest possible representation," Khalaf al-Azzawi told reporters at a televised news conference in Damascus.

"The election took place with full transparency, democracy, integrity, supervised and monitored by independent judicial councils which were not pressured by any side," he said.

The vote was overseen by elements of Syria's judiciary, which has seldom challenged the ruler's authority.

Azzawi declined to give a breakdown for participation in regions hard hit in the revolt - critics said no credible voting was feasible in areas under continued siege and shelling from Assad's forces - and it was not possible to verify the figures.

The election followed the adoption of a constitution that allowed new political parties - although no vote shares for individual parties were given and there are still effectively no parties functioning independently of Assad's Baath movement, which has ruled Syria for 49 years.

TURNOUT LITTLE CHANGED FROM 2007

And the figures implied a turnout little different from that in parliamentary elections in 2007, when there was not even a nominal challenge to Baath rule and candidates were drawn almost entirely from the vetted ranks of its loyalists.

Azzawi read out a list of candidates who won seats in the 250-seat assembly, including independent figure Qadri Jameel, who had said the vote could be a "starting point for a political process" in Syria, despite a boycott by most opposition figures.

Voting in the capital Damascus last week appeared patchy. At one polling station, where authorities said 137 people voted in the first three hours, foreign journalists saw only three people cast their ballots in a 40-minute period.

At the last parliamentary election in 2007, officials announced a 56 percent turnout.

The new parliament is to convene within the next two weeks under a revised constitution that does not outline any substantially different role for the assembly.

Western countries including the United States and Gulf powers led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar endorse opposition calls for Assad to step down as a first step to resolving the crisis, which now features an armed insurgency with sectarian overtones.

But no foreign power shows any appetite for the sort of military intervention that eventually brought down Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, and Assad has relied on Russia and China to block United Nations sanctions aimed at seeing him quit power.

The global body has proposed a ceasefire plan backed with international monitors calling for Assad to release political detainees and allow peaceful protest, among other things.

But bloodshed continues in much of the country, and Saudi Arabia's foreign minister - who has previously called for arming Syrian insurgents - said on Monday the Annan plan was losing credibility.

(Writing by Joseph Logan; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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