Syria’s government said its citizens approved a new constitution supporting President Bashar al- Assad’s bid to introduce political pluralism after almost a year of violence as the European Union tightened sanctions.
The referendum drew 57.4 percent of eligible voters, or about 8.4 million people, with 89.4 percent of casting ballots in favor of the proposal, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said on its website, citing the Interior Ministry. Fewer than 1 million people, or 9 percent of voters, rejected the new charter, Syrian state television said. Assad’s forces continued to shell cities in central and northern Syria during and after the vote.
“The referendum in Syria is nothing more than a farce,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement late yesterday. “Phony votes cannot contribute to a solution to the crisis.”
Assad is facing growing international pressure to end his crackdown on dissent as he seeks to affirm his mandate as Syria’s leader with the new constitution. The EU decided today to freeze the central bank’s assets, ban precious-metals trading with the country and prohibit cargo-only flights to the bloc. The measures build on an oil embargo approved last September. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is campaigning for re- election, said France would press Russia and China to drop their opposition to United Nations sanctions against Syria.
At least 41 people died today in Syria, including 39 protesters and two soldiers, according to Al Arabiya television and SANA. Shelling continued in the Baba Amr region in the central city of Homs, Al Arabiya said, while the army also attacked Idlib in the north, Al Jazeera reported.
About 8,500 people have been killed in the government’s crackdown against the protests that began last March, according to the Arab Organization for Human Rights.
Assad promised constitutional changes last year as he sought to placate opponents by freeing some political prisoners, changing the Cabinet and lifting a 48-year-old emergency law. The new constitution promises democratic elections while limiting presidents to two seven-year terms, according to a draft published by SANA. Assad’s Baath Party has had a monopoly on politics since seizing power in a 1963 coup.
Voting was extended to 10 p.m. local time yesterday because of crowds in 14,185 polling stations across the country, according to state television, which earlier aired live footage of people waiting to cast ballots. Opposition groups said they would boycott the vote.
“Participation is low in many areas,” Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human rights, said by phone. “Participating in this referendum is like taking part and giving legitimacy for the Syrian regime in the killings. The boycott is meant to send a message to the regime that the people do not want these reforms while you are killing them.”
Syria’s army has intensified attacks since a resolution supported by the Arab League aimed at installing a transitional government, to be followed by elections, was vetoed at the UN Security Council by Russia and China on Feb. 4.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have urged arming the Syrian opposition, raising the prospect of a widening conflict after the “Friends of Syria” group met in Tunis on Feb. 24 to pressure Assad to step down.
The two Arab nations backed a plan to send weapons to rebels fighting the Syrian regime, a call echoed by prominent U.S. Republican lawmakers, while the Obama administration and officials from Morocco, Tunisia and Bahrain said they are against further militarization of the conflict.
“Syria rejects and condemns all that was said and decided at the meeting of the enemies of Syria in Tunisia,” the official news agency reported. The government considers calls to arm the opposition an act of interference in its internal affairs and a form of support for terrorist groups, it said.
Russia backed Syria’s stance on the “Friends of Syria” meeting, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying today that the gathering in Tunisia was “one-sided” and won’t facilitate political dialogue.
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