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Syrians vote on new constitution

Updated: 2012-02-27 07:11
By Li Lianxing ( China Daily)

Talks between government and opposition 'vital' for peace

BEIJING - Syrians voted on a referendum for a new constitution on Sunday in a bid to ease ongoing violence, a goal Chinese experts said can only be achieved after the government and opposition hold talks.

The new constitution, if approved, will give Syrians more freedom, end the monopoly on power of President Bashar al-Assad's Baath Party and set a timetable for multiparty elections.

Syrians vote on new constitution

A woman casts her vote on a new constitution at a polling station in Damascus, Syria, on Sunday. [Photo/Agencies]

Under the constitution the president will end his two seven-year terms in 2014 at the latest and, with it, his family's 40-odd years of control over the country. Voting results will be announced on Monday.

Dozens of people lined up to vote in two polling stations visited by a Reuters journalist in Damascus.

"I've come to vote for President Bashar, God protect him and give him victory over his enemies," Reuters quoted Samah Turkmani, in his 50s, as saying.

Bassam Haddad, the director of one polling center, said: "From the beginning the voting has been much better than we expected. We can say 200 percent above expectations."

Another voter, Majed Elias, said: "This is a national duty, whether I agree or not, I have to come and vote ... I agree with the draft constitution, even if I object to some parts. Every Syrian must ride the wave of reform to achieve what he wants."

Anti-Assad activists have called for a boycott of a vote they see as meaningless. They said they would try to hold protests near polling stations in Damascus and suburbs where troops drove out insurgents last month.

Opposition leaders have refused to participate in the referendum, stressing that stopping violence is the top priority at present.

The unrest, which broke out in March, has killed thousands of people including many government troops.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not comment on Sunday.

But Wu Sike, China's Middle East envoy, said on Thursday that China supports all efforts that are conducive to peacefully resolving the Syrian issue, he said.

"China will continue to keep in touch with all concerned parties in the United Nations, with the Arab League and with the Syrian government and all of the political parties," Wu said.

Earlier this month, China, along with Russia, vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for a regime change in Syria.

The veto was not to protect Assad's regime, Wu said, but to prevent further violence.

Premier Wen Jiabao said this month that China does not support any side but aims to promote peace in the Middle East country.

China did not attend the "Friends of Syria" conference held in Tunis on Friday, when representatives of about 70 countries and regions agreed not to militarize the Syrian conflict but agreed on an Arab peacekeeping force to ensure stability during Syria's democratic transition.

Zhang Xiaodong, secretary-general of the China Association for Middle Eastern Studies, said the referendum might help ease the crisis and facilitate political reform.

"But the key is that the opposition have denied the legitimacy of the incumbent government and are unwilling to talk, let alone take part in reform," he said. "So the future of Syria, even after this vote, may be at a standstill."

Various parties in Syria have different interests and a consensus has not been reached even among the opposition.

"That adds to the difficulty of bringing everyone to the negotiating table," he said.

Peaceful political dialogue, initiated by China and Russia, is the way out for the Syrian crisis, as the "regime change" supported by the West may repeat the chaos brought by wars in Iraq and Libya, he said.

Another expert said the referendum seemed to be too late.

"This vote aims to limit the crisis but has missed the most opportune time," said Ye Hailin, a professor in international relations at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The result of the referendum will be tarnished as it has been boycotted by the opposition, he added.

He said some changes in the new constitution showed compromise from the government, but not enough. "There is no room for negotiations between the government and opposition so the next step by the Arab League will be quite important," he said.

Xinhua contributed to this story.