DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria called a presidential election for June 3, aiming to give President Bashar Assad a veneer of electoral legitimacy in the midst of a civil war that has killed more than 150,000 people and driven a third of the population from their homes.
The opposition and the United States denounced the vote as a farce, and a U.N. spokesman said it will "hamper the prospects for a political solution." But Assad's government appears determined to hold the election as a way of exploiting its recent military gains.
The announcement Monday by Parliament Speaker Jihad Laham raises questions about how the government intends to hold any kind of credible vote within the deeply divided country, where large areas lie outside government control and where hundreds of thousands of people live in territory that is either contested, held by rebels or blockaded by pro-government forces.
"There will not be any voting centers in areas controlled by the gunmen," Syrian lawmaker Sharif Shehadeh told The Associated Press. He said the Syrian army was present in many provinces across Syria, "and this will make up for the areas outside of government control," he added.
But Nazeer al-Khatib, an opposition activist in the northern city of Aleppo, said "the only people who will vote are the ones who support Assad."
"Unfortunately, unfortunately, unfortunately, in the elections on June 3, Bashar Assad would be holding elections over the blood of Syrians," Ahmad Alqusair, another opposition activist, said via Skype from a rebel-held town near the Lebanese border. "If we are being blockaded from even eating bread, how can I vote?"
Assad, who has ruled the country since taking over from his late father in 2000, has suggested he would seek another term in office, reflecting his determination to show he is the legitimate leader of Syria.
With the unwavering support of his strong allies, Russia and Iran, Assad has strengthened his once-tenuous hold on power in recent months with an ongoing crushing military assault to recapture key urban areas, likely hoping to have them under government control before the vote is held.
"This is an outrage that anyone would even think of holding an election in the midst of this carnage," said Rime Allaf, an adviser to the head of the main Western-backed Syrian National Coalition opposition group.
"It is a slap in the face of all the efforts of the international community including the sponsors of the Geneva peace conference," Allaf added, referring to two rounds of failed peace talks between the government and the opposition held in Switzerland earlier this year.
The coalition has called on Assad to step down in favor of a transitional governing body that would administer the country until free presidential and parliament elections can be held.
World leaders have denounced Assad's intention to hold elections with the country still engulfed in violence.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Assad was "making a mockery of his own pretentions to be a democratically elected leader."
"The presidential referendum, which is what this would be, is a parody of democracy and would have no credibility or legitimacy within Syria or outside of Syria," he said.
British Foreign Office Minister Mark Simmonds said Assad's plans for elections "can only be designed to sustain his dictatorship."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also criticized the announcement.
The secretary-general and U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi "have repeatedly warned that the holding of elections in the current circumstances, amid the ongoing conflict and massive displacement, will damage the political process and hamper the prospects for a political solution that the country so urgently needs," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Until now, Assad and his father, Hafez Assad, have been elected by referendums in which they were the only candidates and voters cast yes-or-no ballots.
Last month, the Syrian parliament approved an electoral law opening the door — at least in theory — to other candidates. The new law, however, placed conditions effectively ensuring that almost no opposition figures would be able to run. It states that any candidate must have lived in Syria for the past 10 years and cannot have any other citizenship.
Laham, the parliament speaker, said those seeking to run for president may register their candidacies from Tuesday until May 1. Syrian officials said the May 1 deadline may be extended if there are no presidential candidates by then.
"I call on the citizens of the Syrian Arab Republic, inside and outside (the country) to exercise their right in electing a president," Laham said from parliament in comments broadcast live on state-run television.
Syrians living outside of the country may start voting on May 28, Laham said. It was not clear whether he meant that to include more than 2.5 million refugees in neighboring states — an unlikely scenario because of logistical and political considerations.
Assad has not publicly said whether he would run, but in recent months he appeared to be in campaign mode, visiting areas recently retaken by his forces.
The government has presented the elections as the solution to the war, suggesting Assad would step down gracefully if he loses the vote.
No reliable statistics exist on public support for Assad. But a large number of Syrians are mistrustful of all the country's warring parties.
The armed rebellion is dominated by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, while Syria's mix of Christian and Muslim minorities, including Assad's own Alawite sect, tend to support the president, fearful of their fates should hard-line Sunni Muslims come to power.
Highlighting security concerns even in areas under firm government control, the elections announcement Monday came just hours after a pair of mortar shells struck some 100 meters (100 yards) from the parliament building in central Damascus, killing five people, according to state TV. Two more people were killed and 23 others wounded by mortar rounds that slammed into the predominantly Christian area of Bab Touma in Damascus.
Analysts said the election date was likely set for June 3 to give pro-government forces time to seize back key rebel-held urban centers in Aleppo and the central city of Homs, where troops backed by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas have been on a crushing offensive.
Aleppo is Syria's largest city, while Homs is the third largest. Parts of both cities are under rebel control. Assad has a firm grip on the capital, Damascus.
"If the regime can control them, then it can claim to control the three largest cities in the country, which will give them a measure of legitimacy," said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. "That's why they are waiting until June, hoping they can change the realities on the ground between now and then."
Khashan said elections were unlikely to lead to any real reforms, and that the announcement was more of a move to show Assad was truly in power.
"Even the most despotic regimes want to give the image that they are the true representatives of their people," he said. "Assad is no different."
Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Beirut, Sylvia Hui in London, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Julie Pace and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.