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Parliamentary vote in Syria can’t cover up country’s violent divisions

Nationwide parliamentary elections are scheduled for Monday in Syria, but in this city not far from the border with Lebanon, the only posters on the walls bear the faces of the dead.

“Vote for the martyr,” read the posters, which were plastered across walls in the city’s main square, a half-hour drive from the capital, Damascus.

There is, not surprisingly after more than a year of bloody conflict, little common ground between the country’s increasingly militant opposition and those who support the government of President Bashar Assad. The opposition has fielded no candidates for parliament, and it is unlikely any political party that has called for Assad’s removal, as the opposition does, would be allowed to stand in elections. But those who said they plan to vote also said there was no alternative.

“What’s the best way to build a country? By destroying it? By swimming in blood?” asked Rami Ghazal, an organizer for the Syrian National Youth Party, which was fielding three candidates in the Damascus region, which accounts for 29 of the parliament’s 265 seats.

Ghazal’s party received a license to operate three months ago, after a constitutional referendum paved the way for parties other than Assad’s Baath Party, which has ruled the country for four decades.

“I didn’t participate in any of the demonstrations because I believe everything is fine,” Ghazal said, referring to the uprising against Assad that began in March 2011 with largely peaceful demonstrations before armed rebellion became widespread in response to government attacks on demonstrators. “The constitution is not perfect. It needs work. But it’s better than the old one.”

But for people in rebel-dominated places such as Zabadani, the constitutional reforms mean little and promises of reform are not taken seriously. New parties still need to be approved by the Baath Party-controlled government, and even though the new constitution limits the Syrian president to two seven-year terms, Assad can remain in office until 2028 if he were to be reelected twice after his current term ends in 2014.

“Why vote? It’s all propaganda. The government will just do what it wants anyway,” said one man who asked not to named for fear of his safety. He echoed a sentiment voiced by others in Zabadani when asked about elections.

Ghazal, who said he supported the use of the army to return security to the country, said he did not believe elections would quell the violence or satisfy the opposition.

“The organizers of these demonstrations don’t want security,” Ghazal said.

Ghazal, who is from the northern Damascus suburb of Harasta, said that rebels identifying themselves as the Free Syrian Army had been warning people in the area not to participate in elections. He that polls there were unlikely to open.

“My family will vote in Damascus because they believe in voting,” Ghazal said.

Ghazal is Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Assad also belongs. A key grievance of many members of the anti-government opposition is apparent government favoritism toward minority Alawites, and Ghazal said the mostly Sunni Muslim FSA in Harasta had driven most of the Alawites out of the area. He described a situation in Harasta in which the army controlled the area by day and the FSA attacked at night.

“I was threatened and one of my friends was killed because he was a judge in a military court,” Ghazal said. “The people who are against the government say we live in a dictatorship, but they are worse. Not all Alawites support Bashar, but they have become a symbol of the government.”

Zabadani, with a population of around 20,000, was briefly out of the Syrian government’s control before a military campaign here in February drove out armed rebels. But the anti-government graffiti and posters in the center of town suggested the threat was far from gone. The military’s checkpoints, some hastily rebranded as “police” checkpoints in order to comply with a United Nations-sponsored peace plan, were on the outskirts of the city but not inside, creating what some residents described as a sense of siege.

“The farmers can’t go to their fields,” said 40-year-old Mohammed al Dinnawi, who said he had lost his job at a government office in Damascus. “I haven’t left Zabadani in seven months because I am afraid I will be arrested at one of the checkpoints _ there are wanted people with the same last name.”

In the nearby town of Madiya, residents said the Free Syrian Army, the name taken by most of the loosely organized and lightly armed rebel groups, had brokered a deal with the army to keep checkpoints outside of the town’s center.

Syrian soldiers in Madiya said a checkpoint had been attacked on Saturday. Residents in Madiya, who chanted anti-government slogans as United Nations monitors passed through the town, said the military had continued to arrest those suspected of anti-government activities, another apparent violation of the cease-fire plan.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 21 people were by the Syrian military and security forces across the country on Saturday. SANA, the Syrian government news agency reported that seven members of the army and police killed by rebels in the cities of Idlib, Lattakia, and Aleppo were buried on Thursday, but did not say when they had been killed.

According the London-based Observatory, which has kept the most detailed casualty records since the uprising began, more than 11,000 people, the majority civilians, have been killed since March 2011.

Enders is a McClatchy Special Correspondent.

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