FEBRUARY 27 2012 09:29h

Clinton: Syria Constitution vote a 'ploy'


DAMASCUS, Syria, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- Results from a Syrian vote on a new constitution, roundly criticized in the West, will be available Monday, the Assad regime said as dozens died in fighting.

The results will be announced Monday evening, the official Syrian Arab News Agency said.

Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar was quoted by the state-run agency as saying the voting at more than 14,000 polling stations for multiparty elections and presidential term limits began at 7 a.m. local time and ran "normally" in most provinces, with turnout "huge ... except in some areas."

But The New York Times reported no voters appeared in the southern Damascus district of Ma'adamiah until about 1 p.m., and most of them were municipal workers.

Other polling places appeared deserted, the newspaper said.

Videos posted online by opposition groups purported to show people demonstrating against the vote throughout the country. One showed a poster saying, "We step on the new constitution."

President Bashar Assad and his British-born wife Asma smiled and waved to cheering public employees as they voted at a polling station in the state-run broadcast center in Damascus, the capital, government TV images showed.

A 36-year-old woman who said she was from the same Alawite clan as Assad told the Times her vote meant a "new Syria."

"This new constitution will shift Syria into the ranks of the democratic countries," she said.

The new constitution, made public a couple of weeks ago despite Assad's promises of constitutional reforms since at least June 2011, ends the ruling Baath Party's political monopoly and introduces presidential term limits.

But the term limits -- two terms of seven years each -- would start only after Assad's current term expires in 2014, the draft constitution says.

This means he could serve two more terms and therefore rule for 28 years, until 2028, when he would be 62. He has been in power since his father Hafez Assad died in 2000 at age 69 after ruling for 30 years.

The constitution's multiparty clause requires candidates to have lived in Syria for 10 consecutive years and not have a foreign-born wife. It also prohibits parties based on religion or ethnicity.

Critics say this would bar groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood or representatives of the Kurdish minority from participating.

Syrian lawmaker George Jabbour told CNN "special committees will be formed to look into the licensing of new parties in line with the new Constitution" and future presidential elections "will be competitive since there is no leading party anymore."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton dismissed the vote as a vacant gesture.

"It's a phony referendum that is going to be used by Assad to justify what he is doing to other Syrians," she told CBS News from Rabat, Morocco. "So it's a cynical ploy to say the least."

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called the vote "a farce," adding, "Sham votes cannot be a contribution to a resolution of the crisis."

Russia and China endorsed the referendum process.

They also accused Clinton and other "friends of the Syrian people" delegates who met in Tunis, Tunisia, Friday of encouraging war after they called for Assad's ouster and asked the United Nations to begin planning for a peacekeeping force.

One place in Syria where voting did not take place Sunday was the besieged central-western city of Homs, where nearly 50 people were killed as troops loyal to Assad pounded the opposition stronghold, the anti-government Local Coordination Committees reported.

Syrian forces have bombarded Homs, especially its embattled Baba Amr neighborhood, daily since Feb. 4.