Syrians were voting on Sunday on a new constitution in the face of opposition calls for a boycott and deadly violence that Washington has said made the exercise “laughable.”
The new text ends the legal basis for the five-decade stranglehold on power of the ruling Baath party but leaves huge powers in the hands of President Bashar al-Assad.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, warned there was “every possibility” that Syria could descend into a civil war which could be worsened by foreign intervention.
The opposition says the changes are cosmetic and that only Assad’s ouster will suffice after 11 months of repression by his security forces that human rights groups say have left more than 7,600 people dead.
On Saturday alone, 98 people were killed, 72 of them civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
As polling was under way, the Britain-based watchdog reported new violence around the country that left at least 16 civilians and 14 security force personnel dead.
In the central city of Homs — under assault by regime forces for more than three weeks — shelling resumed of the rebel district of Baba Amr, dashing Red Cross hopes of a lull to allow the evacuation of two wounded Western journalists.
France’s Interior Minister Claude Gueant warned it was “medically urgent” to get wounded French reporter Edith Bouvier out of the besieged district.
Syrian state television aired live footage from a number of polling stations around the country and reported that “large number of voters” had turned out. Voting was due to end at 07:00 pm (1700 GMT).
“I am voting because this is the outcome of reforms introduced by the president, and if they succeed we will have a democracy, not like in Libya and elsewhere,” Balsam Kahila, 32, told AFP after voting in Damascus at the finance ministry where she works.
Many voters did not bother to use the special booths, instead showing everyone their choice of “yes” to the new charter.
Outside at the main Seven Fountains Square, large crowds gathered brandishing Syrian flags as pro-Assad anthems blared from loudspeakers.
In the southwestern city of Sweida, heartland of the Druze minority, one voter said she voted without hesitation in favour of the new constitution, although she said it was not enough.
“We’re not stupid. We know that the new text does not meet the aspirations of the people, but voting is a message to support stability and reject the civil war that threatens our country,” she said.
Khaled, a 37-year-old lawyer, said: “In theory, the new constitution… opens the way to a multi-party system and to a democratic transition… The real political battle now is to force those in power to respect the text.”
In Homs, no voting appeared to be taking place, activist Hadi Abdullah told AFP after touring parts of the city where rebels are active.
“There are no people in the streets. Everything is shut, and there is not a single polling station,” he said.
Foreign journalists have very limited freedom of movement in Syria because of stringent restrictions imposed by the authorities.
Assad unveiled the proposed new national charter earlier this month, in the latest step in what he says is a cautious process of reform.
Damascus’s allies, Beijing and Moscow, which have blocked action against the regime at the UN Security Council, have expressed support for the process.
“We hope that the referendum on a new constitution as well as the forthcoming parliamentary elections pass off calmly,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun said in Damascus earlier this month.
But White House spokesman Jay Carney said: “It’s actually quite laughable — it makes a mockery of the Syrian revolution.
Speaking to the BBC in Morocco, Clinton said: “I think that there’s every possibility of a civil war. Outside intervention would not prevent that — it would probably expedite it.”
She also urged Syrian soldiers to abandon the regime. “We are appealing to the members of the Syrian army to put their country first,” Clinton told a news conference in Rabat.
Drawn up by a committee of 29 people appointed by Assad, the new charter would drop the highly controversial Article 8 in the existing charter, which makes the president’s Baath party “the head of state and society.”
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 keep his grip on broad powers, as he would still name the premier 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.
Assad could therefore theoretically stay at the helm for another 16 years.
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