DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — For all the serious flaws in Syria's election, it underscored the considerable support that President Bashar Assad still enjoys from the population, including many in the majority Sunni Muslim community.
Syria's conflict is often portrayed through one of its many prisms — that of a sectarian struggle, in which overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels seek to topple Assad, who belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The country's rich tapestry of Christian and Muslim minorities, meanwhile, help keep Assad in power, fearing their fate if he were to fall.
Without Sunni support, however, Assad's rule would have collapsed long ago amid a civil war that activists say has killed more than 160,000, displaced at least a third of Syria's prewar population of 23 million, and destroyed wide swaths of the country.
That support was on display as Syrians voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to give Assad another seven-year term. He won 88.7 percent of the vote, the speaker of parliament announced Wednesday night, although the outcome was never in question.
The election was boycotted by the opposition, and ignored and even ridiculed in rebel-held areas where fighting continues. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was among those in the West who denounced the balloting, calling it "a great big zero."
While the balloting and much of the pro-Assad spectacle seen on the streets of Damascus was stage-managed, even the president's staunchest enemies concede that the man who has led Syria since 2000 retains substantial backing.
"If only minorities were loyal to Assad, they (rebels) would have taken the country," said Wida Saleh, a 35-year-old lawyer and Assad supporter who reluctantly identified herself as a Sunni Muslim.
"But because the majority (Sunnis) are standing behind him, they have kept Syria standing," she said at a voting booth set up in Damascus' ornate, century-old Hijaz train station.
Saleh's comments were echoed by others interviewed by The Associated Press in a Sunni-dominated, middle-class neighborhood of central Damascus, as well as by Syrians across the political spectrum — including some of the tens of thousands who have fled their country for neighboring Lebanon. The Damascus interviews were conducted without the presence of government representatives.
It is difficult to ascertain the popularity or discontent with Assad inside Syria.. The country has a pervasive security apparatus in place that punishes people for speaking out against the ruling establishment.
Many who supported and respected him for modernizing what had long been a drab capital have turned against him because of the violence his government has inflicted on those who oppose him, including the relentless shelling of rural, opposition-held areas around Damascus that persisted on election day.
Assad's supporters offered insights into why they still back him. These include fatigue over the conflict, mistrust among many toward a disorganized opposition, and the growing power of Islamic extremists in the rebel ranks.
Some said they support the government because it provided many free services, such as education and health care, and heavily subsidized others. Before the uprising, Syria was often touted as one of the safest countries in the world.
The 48-year-old British-trained eye doctor with a stylish wife never really fit the mold of an Arab dictator. While he maintained his father's iron grip politically, many credit him with opening up the economy. Under free-market reforms, Damascus and other cities saw a flourishing of malls, restaurants and consumer goods, increasing tourism.
For many of his die-hard supporters, he is a nationalist hero fighting Western imperialism and ensuring stable, secular rule in a turbulent region wracked by sectarian wars.
"I think it's a duty to vote for Assad," said Arfan Jumra, a 45-year-old civil servant.
"We have seen what he offered to the country: school, education, electricity," he said. "I live in a poor area, and we see what we have been given. This is really important."
For many in the urban, mostly Sunni middle-class, their prosperity and employment depends on the government.
"It's Syrians in the middle that represent a core constituency that both the regime and the opposition are appealing to," said Ayham Kamel, an analyst with the Eurasia group in London. "The choices for these Syrians, who are mostly Sunni, are not great: the Assad regime, radical Islamists, conservative and secular rebels who have a poor governance track."
Syria once prided itself on being a tolerant and open society that fully embraced its multitude of religious and ethnic groups. But that fabric has been ripped apart by a conflict that has given rise to radicals on both sides of the battle.
After the government brutally cracked down on the peaceful protests that marked the early months of the revolt in 2011, many Syrians eventually took up arms. As the uprising shifted into civil war, foreign fighters and Islamic extremists began to swell the rebel ranks before ultimately becoming a dominant force in the armed opposition.
Those fighting to oust Assad are called "terrorists" by the government, which presents all of them as hard-core jihadists.
In parts of Syria they have taken over, militants from the al-Qaida breakaway group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have enforced Shariah restrictions, executing opponents in public, banning music and forcing Christians to pay a tax for protection. The militants routinely carry out suicide operations.
That has hardened many Syrians' view of the conflict, which they now regard as one against foreign Islamic fighters.
For the lawyer Saleh, fears of those ultraconservative fighters contribute, in part, to her support for Assad.
"The extremists are a danger to everybody," she said. She was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Assad's face, the Syrian flag and the words, "Yes, we love you."
Before the uprising, "we would have been embarrassed to ask somebody what their religion was. We aren't raised that way in Syria," Saleh said. "We are like a mosaic (of faiths) in Syria."
She then pointed to a nearby election committee: three women, one wearing a Muslim headscarf, sitting behind a desk, overseeing the voting.
"Look at the election committee here — they are all of the majority faith in Syria," she said, referring to Sunnis.
A female civil servant who identified herself only as Maha echoed Saleh's concerns about what life would look like in Syria should the opposition take power.
Maha, her hair coiffed and cheeks heavily rouged, said she worried about women's freedoms if Assad fell.
"Assad gave women their rights and her freedom," Maha said. "They (the opposition) have taken this country backward."
Such sentiments are shared by many Syrians abroad, some of whom returned to vote.
Zouha, a 23-year-old from Damascus who is working on her master's degree in Beirut, said that if the Syrian regime collapsed, a moderate opposition "will not even have the chance of coming to power. There will be massive chaos."
Interviewed in Beirut, she said she voted for Assad, even though she was not a "big fan" of his. She declined to give her full name, fearing harassment.
Many Syrians and some analysts say fatigue over the bloodshed in Syria, now entering its fourth year, played a key role.
"A significant part of the opposition's support base initially believed that the revolution would succeed quickly and that they would return to their regular businesses in a matter of months," said Kamel, the analyst. "At this point, even part of that group that despises the regime is forced to reconsider their position."
"It's been three years. It's enough," said Moataz, a 40-year-old technician who worked in an upscale Damascus hotel.
Asked if he believed any other candidate or the opposition could lead the country, he replied that only Assad had acted decisively. The technician said none of his relatives had died in the conflict, but that he grieved nonetheless.
"We lost our country," he said.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Yasmine Saker in Beirut contributed to this report.