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Syria lawmaker becomes first presidential challenger

By AFP - Apr 23,2014 - Last updated at Apr 23,2014

DAMASCUS — An independent Syrian lawmaker registered Wednesday as the first challenger in a June presidential election widely expected to return incumbent Bashar Assad to power despite a raging civil war.

Assad’s government hit back at a torrent of international criticism of its decision to call the election despite the violence that has killed more than 150,000 people in three years, insisting it was its sovereign right to do so.

Assad has yet to declare his own candidacy but he is widely expected to stand and win a new seven-year term.

The authorities have not spelt out how they plan to hold a credible election with as much as 60 per cent of Syria’s territory and 40 per cent of its population outside their control, according to French geographer Fabrice Balanche.

But that did not stop independent lawmaker and former communist Maher Hajjar, a member of the regime-tolerated opposition, from registering his candidacy with the constitutional court.

Born in the main northern city of Aleppo in 1968, Hajjar was a member of the Syrian Communist Party until 2000, when he joined the Popular Will party of Qadri Jamil, state television said.

Jamil served as deputy foreign minister until October 2013 when Assad fired him and he moved to Moscow.

Hajjar “took part in the peaceful, popular movement at the start of the crisis”, the state broadcaster said referring to Arab Spring-inspired demonstrations against Assad’s rule that erupted in March 2011.

The protests quickly escalated into an armed uprising in the face of a deadly crackdown by Assad loyalists, triggering a descent into civil war.

As he filed his registration papers, Hajjar said he hoped to obtain the support of the 35 fellow members of the 250-member parliament he needs for his candidacy to be approved.

It will be the first presidential election organised by the regime — previously a referendum was held on a single candidate but that system was replaced by an amendment to the constitution.

Election rules require candidates to have lived in Syria for the past decade, effectively preventing key opposition figures in exile from standing.

Candidates have until May 1 to register and Syrians living abroad will vote on May 28.

The Syrian opposition has slammed the planned election as a “farce” while the United Nations and the Arab League have warned it will deal a heavy blow to efforts to broker a negotiated peace.

But a Syrian foreign ministry official said the United Nations and its envoy Lakhdar Brahimi were to blame for “obstructing” peace talks in Switzerland earlier this year which were abandoned after just two rounds.

A ministry statement said that calling the the election was Syria’s “sovereign” right and that it would brook no interference.

“Western countries that make claims about democracy and freedom should listen to the opinion of the Syrians [to find out] who they will chose,” it said.

The ministry accused some states that “send weapons to the terrorists [rebels], support their crimes and refuse to listen to the voice of the Syrian people as expressed through the ballot box [of] obstructing all political solutions”.

It did not name any states but the accusation appeared to be primarily targeted at neighbouring Turkey and the Gulf Arab states.

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