DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad has been re-elected in a landslide, officials said Wednesday, capturing another seven-year term in the middle of a bloody 3-year-old uprising against his rule that has devastated the country.
Syria's parliament speaker, Jihad Laham, announced the final results from Tuesday's election, saying Assad garnered 10,319,723 votes, or 88.7 percent. Assad's two challengers, Hassan al-Nouri and Maher Hajjar, won 4.3 percent and 3.2 percent respectively. The Supreme Constitutional Court put turnout at 73.42 percent.
Assad's victory was always a foregone conclusion, despite the presence of other candidates on the ballot for the first time in decades. The opposition and its Western allies denounced the election as a farce, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry calling it a "great big zero."
Damascus erupted into a thunderous, rolling clap of celebratory gunfire that appeared to include heavy weaponry after the results were announced. Thousands of Assad supporters flocked the streets to celebrate, some waving large Syrian flags and others carrying photos of Assad as car horns blared. Some men broke into the familiar pro-Assad chant: "With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, Bashar!"
Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen television aired live footage from the government stronghold of Latakia and the war-ravaged city of Homs, which the government recaptured last month, showing crowds of people celebrating with flags and posters of Assad amid cries of "God, Syria, Bashar!" Fireworks lit up the night sky in Latakia.
Voting was held only in government-controlled areas, excluding huge tracks of northern and eastern Syria that are in rebel hands. Tens of thousands of Syrians abroad voted last week, although many of the more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees across the region either abstained or were excluded by law.
The vote provided no respite from the war. As people filed to the polls in Damascus on Tuesday, the rumble of government shelling and airstrikes on rebellious suburbs provided an ominous backdrop and sobering reminder that not all Syrians were able to cast their ballots.
That did nothing to diminish the enthusiasm of Assad's supporters, for whom the election victory provided a boost amid a war that has touched every family on both sides of the divide.
The win also provides further evidence that the Syrian leader has no intention of relinquishing power, making a protracted conflict the likely outcome in fighting that has already lasted three years and killed more than 160,000 people.
Assad's hold on power was not always so secure. Just over a year ago, his grip was slipping as vast swaths of the country fell to the surging rebels. But Assad's troops — bolstered by allies Iran, Russia and the Lebanese Shiite militant Hezbollah — managed over the past year to turn the tide, and even wrest back some of the ground lost.
For the first time in decades, there were multiple candidates on Syria's presidential ballot. In previous elections, Assad, and before him his father, Hafez Assad, were elected in single-candidate referendums in which voters cast yes-no ballots. In both Syria's 2000 and 2007 elections, Assad garnered 97 percent yes votes.
The government has portrayed this vote as a democratic solution to Syria's conflict, although there's no indication it will help bridge the differences of a bitterly divided nation. Syria's rebels remain determined in their fight to oust Assad. Like him, they show no inclination to compromise.
The war has left the international community deeply divided, with the U.S. and its allies backing the revolt against Assad, who enjoys the support of Russia and Iran.
That division persisted in perceptions of Tuesday's vote.
In Beirut, Kerry sharply criticized the Syrian election, calling it "a great big zero." It can't be considered fair, he said, "because you can't have an election where millions of your people don't even have an ability to vote."
"Nothing has changed from the day before the election and the day after. Nothing," Kerry said during a one-day visit Wednesday to the Lebanese capital. "The conflict is the same, the terror is the same, the killing is the same."
The European Union joined the U.S. in condemning the election, saying in a statement that "it cannot be considered as a genuinely democratic vote."
In Damascus, meanwhile, a delegation led by the government's chief international supporters said Syria's first multi-candidate presidential election in over four decades was transparent and free, and would pave the way for "stability and national agreement."
The delegation of officials from more than 30 countries, including legislators and dignitaries from Iran, Russia and Venezuela, toured polling stations on Tuesday. In a final statement read Wednesday by Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of the Iranian parliament's Committee on National Security, the delegation blamed the U.S and its allies for "crimes committed against the Syrian people."
Delegation member Alexey Alexandrov, a Russian senator, told reporters in Damascus that the elections assured "Assad's legitimacy and mean he cannot be removed in a military operation."
"I am sure that the elections that happened in Syria were done according to all the principles of democracy and international law," said Alexandrov, whose country, along with China, has four times vetoed U.N. Security Council sanctions on Damascus.
Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Damascus, and Ryan Lucas, Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.