by editor | 26th February 2012 12:07 pm
Activists doubt charter proposed by President Assad will end five decades of one-party rule at root of ongoing unrest
Voting is under way in Syria on a new constitution that could theoretically end five decades of one-party rule, amid an opposition call for a boycott of the referendum.
Polls opened at 7am local time (05:00 GMT) on Sunday, with more than 14 million people over the age of 18 were eligible to vote at 13,835 polling stations.
However, with many parts of the country reeling from weeks of military assault, and army defectors engaged in a guerrilla campaign against loyalist troops, it was unclear how the ballot could prove to be convincing.
Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, unveiled the proposed new national charter earlier this month in his latest reform pledge since protests erupted last March.
The resulting violence has left more than 7,600 people dead, monitors say.
Assad has promised to hold parliamentary elections within 90 days if voters approve the new constitution. However, the decision to hold the referendum has failed to ease global pressure on his government.
Louay Safi, a leading member of the Syrian National Council, the country’s main opposition group, says the new constitution will be “meaningless” in bringing about change because it is being created by a government that continues to violate its own laws in its campaign to crush the uprising.
“The major problem is that the government is violating the current constitution,” Safi told Al Jazeera. “What we fear is if the regime stays intact, the new constitution will be meaningless.
“So the real step to have a new constitution is to have a new or transitional government.”
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In Damascus, the Syrian capital, and its suburbs, opposition activists said they would try to hold protests near polling centres and burn copies of the new constitution.
“No one is going to vote,” Omar, an activist, said via Skype in advance of the referendum from the flashpoint Bab Amr district of the central city of Homs.
“This was a constitution made to Bashar’s tastes and meanwhile we are getting shelled and killed,” he said.
“More than 40 people were killed today and you want us to vote in a referendum? … No one is going to vote.”
The vote was under way on Sunday as government security forces shelled residential areas in Bab Amr for the 26th day in a row, reportedly killing at least nine people.
Activist groups said at least 100 people, mostly civilians, were killed across the country on Saturday alone as government forces besieged opposition strongholds in the cities of Homs, Idlib, Aleppo, Hama and Deraa.
The new constitution would drop an article making Assad’s Baath party the leader of state and society, allow for political pluralism and enact a presidential limit of two seven-year terms.
The charter, framed by a committee of 29 people appointed by Assad, would drop the highly controversial Article 8 in the existing charter, which makes the Baath party “the head of state and society”.
That would effectively end the monopoly on power the Baathists have enjoyed since they seized power in a 1963 coup that brought Assad’s late father, Hafez, to power.
Instead, the new political system would be based on “pluralism,” although it would ban the formation of parties on religious lines.
Under the new charter, the president would maintain his grip on broad powers, as he would still name the prime minister and government and, in some cases, could veto legislation.
Article 88 states that the president can be elected for two seven-year terms, but Article 155 says these conditions only take effect after the next election for a head of state, set for 2014.
This means that Assad could theoretically stay at the helm for another 16 years.
As the military onslaught continued across the country, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was still unable to evacuate distressed civilians from Bab Amr.
After a day of talks with Syrian authorities and opposition fighters, it said there were “no concrete results”.
“We continue our negotiations, hoping that we will be able to enter Baba Amro to carry out our life-saving operations,” Hisham Hassan, an ICRC spokesman, said.
Conditions were unbearable for some of those trapped by the fighting. “We have hundreds of wounded people crammed into houses,” Hassan said.
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