It was a decision as symbolic as the Syrian presidential election itself.
On Wednesday morning, Syrians woke to local television footage of President Bashar Assad and the first lady, Asma Assad, casting their ballots. The pair were not in a loyalist stronghold but in Douma, the satellite town of Damascus whose residents proved some of the staunchest opponents to Syria’s authoritarian regime.
In the early days of Syria’s decade-long civil war, people from Douma formed some of the first armed groups against the regime. Civilians there also held mass protests, risking live bullets from government soldiers to call for an end to the regime.
They paid a heavy price. In 2013, the regime placed Douma and other satellite towns in these eastern suburbs of Damascus under a tight siege, blockading food, medical equipment and aid supplies. For five years, civilians survived on mostly scraps and some starved. The regime and its ally Russia hit the area with airstrikes and shellfire that rights groups say targeted homes, bakeries and hospitals.
Now, with Assad back in control of large parts of Syria, Wednesday’s presidential election was a chance for the regime demonstrate the extent of its power.
“Assad casting his ballot in Douma is sending a message telling the opposition that we are celebrating through your demise. We are in power here, we are in control,” says Danny Makki, a Syrian British journalist and analyst in Damascus. “It’s a message about who is top dog within Syria.”
This show of strength is visible in Damascus, where giant posters of Assad daub the walls of high-rise buildings, roundabouts and roadsides. In recent weeks, dinners and dances have been held in support of the Syrian president’s campaign.
Many of these events are organized by Syrian businessmen and other citizens who see this presidential election – the first in seven years — as a way to ingratiate themselves with the regime. Assad’s government, with its sprawling security apparatus, once again tightly controls almost every aspect of Syrian life — from whom you can do business with to what you can say.
The U.S., along with Britain, France, Germany and Italy, released a joint statement calling the Syrian presidential election “neither free nor fair” and voicing support for civil society and Syrian opposition groups who have condemned the process.
Assad’s two challengers in the presidential race are Abdallah Saloum Abdallah, a former deputy Cabinet minister, and Mahmoud Ahmed Marei, who leads a small opposition party approved by the government.
Meanwhile, known political opponents to Assad remain in exile, or are among the tens of thousands of people that the United Nations says have been arrested, tortured and disappeared into regime prisons since the start of the conflict in 2011.
The presidential candidates in this election have lacked both the funds and time to campaign. That means they have been unable to mount any significant challenge to Assad, whose family has ruled Syria with an iron fist for some five decades.
Makki says Syrian law allowed the candidates only 10 days to campaign, so many Syrians barely knew who Assad’s challengers were. Instead of a serious presidential race, he says, the run-up to the election has been a “celebratory kind of pro-Assad great spectacle that has been played and replayed in every part of the country.”
This fealty was also seen at the polls, with some voters pricking their fingers with needles at polling stations so that they could sign their support for the president with their blood. This was often coupled with the popular pro-Assad chant: “With our blood and soul we sacrifice our lives for you Bashar.”
The vote took place only in parts of Syria that are back under government control. It excluded the millions of citizens living in the rebel-held province of Idlib and in the northeast of Syria that is controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, which together make up almost a third of the country.
After 10 years of war, more than half of Syria’s population has fled the country or been internally displaced. The war in Syria has left an estimated half a million people dead and has devastated entire cities.
Just as Syrians try to start to piece back together their lives in government-held parts of the country, they have been sent back into spiraling poverty by an economic crisis caused by the war, Western sanctions and the effect of the economic collapse in neighboring Lebanon.
In regime-held Syria, now mostly home to loyalists or people who lack the political or economic freedom to leave, it was expected that most of those going to the polls would cast ballots for Assad.
“The people inside Syria right now believe that the best solution for them is the current president,” a Syrian businessman in Damascus tells NPR, asking not to be named because he fears that speaking with Western media could upset the regime.
He says Syrians want to use this election to be a starting point to “build a better Syria,” and are desperate for stability and a new era of peace, even if it means living under the current regime. “People want hope.”
The election result is a foregone conclusion, and does little to build relations with Western governments. But it is a useful tool for the Syrian regime to project legitimacy with governments in the region.
There are new signs of rapprochement between Syria and Saudi Arabia, which backed opponents of Assad in the war. Saudi’s intelligence chief reportedly met with his Syrian counterpart in Damascus this month. Syrian state media say the country’s tourism minister, Muhammad Rami Martini, is visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time in what is reportedly the first trip there by a Syrian regime minister in a decade.
Beyond the pomp and demonstrations of support for Assad, there are other Syrians for whom the election is symbolic of everything they have lost.
“The regime stole our lives. They destroyed our lives,” a Syrian from the city of Homs tells NPR from the U.K., where he now lives. He fled there in 2011 after seeing his friends killed and arrested in government crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators.
He didn’t want NPR to use his name for fear it could endanger his family members who still live in Syria.
“If you look at Syria’s cities, they are in ruins, and these are really the ruins of our lives and dreams and hopes,” he says. “People just wished for a better future to live in dignity, freedom and justice.”
He says the regime has won at the cost of the country. In this collapsed economy, his family in Syria, like so many others, struggles even to put meals on the table. “The regime turned Syria into a society that is built on despair.”