DAMASCUS, Syria - Syrians began voting for a new parliament Sunday in an election the government hopes will help soften the country's image and ease its international isolation. But the opposition called the vote a farce and urged a boycott.
Turnout appeared to be low on the first of two consecutive days of voting.
Critics complained that most seats were reserved for the ruling coalition and the opposition is demanding an amendment to the law to allow for freer elections with greater competition. The United States dismissed the elections as a useless exercise.
The election is the second since President Bashar Assad took over the reins of power in 2000 from his father, the late Hafez Assad. Many had high hopes at the beginning of his term when pro-democracy activists were given brief measures of freedom. But those hopes have given way to disillusionment and apathy as his regime failed to enact promised political reforms and jailed opponents.
Still in the Arab world where some countries do not have elections and others vote for bodies with very limited power, Syria's parliamentary elections and the tolerance of government critics marks a significant stride from Damascus' more rigid control in the past.
"We should all support this great leadership. No other Arab country has confronted American and Israeli policies the way Syria has," said Salem Mohammed, 50, a merchant.
But Mohammed Arnous, 39, said he was angered by the "haphazard" way people were voting.
"We should really think about who we are voting for," he said before entering a balloting station in downtown Damascus.
Syria has been under intense international pressure to change its policies on neighboring Iraq and Lebanon, particularly since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri for which many blame Damascus. Syria denies it had anything to do with the killing, but U.S. and European officials have shunned the Damascus regime.
The country has been trying recently to improve its standing in the Middle East, and the leadership hopes the election will help soften its image.
Damascus also has made peace overtures to Israel and is credited with facilitating the recent Palestinian dialogue that culminated in a coalition government. It also participated in an international conference in Baghdad last month to help stem violence in Iraq.
In a sign that the international community might be responding, Western officials have resumed visiting the Syrian capital, including recent visits by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Some 2,500 candidates are running for seats in the 250-seat National Assembly in this country of 18.6 million people. Authorities have said that around 7 million citizens are eligible to vote.
The ruling Baath Party and the National Progressive Front a cluster of nine small parties allied with it are assured victory, regardless of turnout, because Syria's constitution reserves two-thirds of legislature for candidates from the ruling coalition.
The remaining seats will be filled by independents whose candidacy must be preapproved by the government.
During a briefing in Washington last week, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs J. Scott Carpenter described the vote as meaningless and "a missed opportunity" for change.
Safwan Qudsi, a senior member of the coalition group allied with the ruling party, said his comments were unacceptable and interference in Syria's internal affairs.
Turnout appeared low in the capital Damascus and at the nearly 11,000 polling stations across the country. Results are not expected before Wednesday.
Turnout in parliamentary elections is traditionally low in this country where the legislature has no major say in policy-making.
Hassan Abdel-Azim, a lawyer who heads a grouping of small parties opposed to the government, insisted the boycott was a factor.
"Of course, the foremost reason for the low turnout is the feeling that the result of the election is a foregone conclusion," he said.
But even those who criticized the election did not voice public support for the boycott call.
The government dismissed the opposition's calls for a boycott and said it had no effect.
"The fate of all those who collaborate against their country is well known," said Bouthaina Shaaban, a Cabinet minister.
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.