Syrians Vote on New Constitution as Death Toll Mounts

Posted February 26th, 2012 at 11:00 am (UTC-5)
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At least 31 Syrian civilians and soldiers were killed in widespread clashes Sunday, as voters cast ballots for a new constitution derided by the opposition and many Western powers.

The new text would create a multi-party system in Syria, which has been governed solely by the Baath Party since a 1963 coup, but leaves huge powers in the hands of President Bashar al-Assad.

The opposition says the proposed changes are cosmetic and that only Mr. Assad's ouster will suffice after his brutal military crackdown on an 11-month anti-government uprising. The two main umbrella opposition groups – the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria – called for a boycott of the vote.

As polling proceeded Sunday, activist groups said continued military bombardment in the protest hub of Homs left nine civilians dead, while rebel fighters killed four soldiers in the city. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said eight civilians and 10 security force personnel were killed in violence elsewhere in Syria.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called Syria's referendum a “farce,” while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Syrians in business and the military who still support Mr. Assad to turn against him.

In areas like Homs, where government shelling has left hundreds dead, or rebel strongholds in the northwest and south, voter turnout is likely to be minimal. Activists in Homs said no voting appeared to be taking place, and Internet video showed some people dropping ballots into the trash.

Despite the violence, voting went ahead in calmer areas. In the capital Damascus, where Mr. Assad retains support among religious minorities and the business class, many said they were eager to vote.

If approved, the referendum would drop an article making the ruling Baath party the leader of state and society, allow political pluralism and enact a presidential limit of two seven-year terms. But the limit would not be retroactive, meaning that Mr. Assad, already in power 11 years, could serve another two terms after his current one expires in 2014.

U.N.-appointed investigators estimate the death toll from the uprising at 6,400 civilians and 1,680 army defectors. Syrian government officials have said they only took military action when under armed attack from “terrorists.”