Polling stations in Syria opened for presidential elections Tuesday, as political analysts predict that President Bashar Assad will win for a third consecutive presidential term against the backdrop of a bloody civil war.
Six other candidates have now announced their intentions to run against Assad, including the first female presidential candidate; this is the first election in Syria since 1970 to have more than one candidate.
Analysts remain pessimistic over the outcome, however - noting that Syria has a long history of rigged elections, and that Assad won his first term in 1999 with a 99% vote - and maintain that the competition is merely a veneer for legitimacy.
"It's a coronation of Assad, it's a celebration of his ability to survive the violent storm and basically go on the offensive," Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, told CNN Tuesday.
The New York Times added that observers at the scene include representatives from Syria's allies, many of which are no more democratic than Syria itself - including Russia, Iran, and North Korea.
Rigged or real?
Assad announced the elections just days after stating that he believed his forces were gaining ground in the war, which so far has killed at least 150,000 people and displaced over one million Syrians.
Assad has consistently insisted that the elections are democratic, despite criticism from rights groups and the EU.
"The Syrian presidency... maintains an equal distance from all candidates in order that Syrians can choose their... president freely and transparently," Assad maintained, in a statement translated by AFP in April.
Syria's Foreign Ministry also responded sharply to the criticism, claiming the decision to hold the election was a "purely sovereign" one and that foreign interference would not be tolerated.
"If these countries, foremost among them the Western nations, are calling for democracy and freedom, then they should listen to the views of Syrians and who they choose through the ballot box," state television quoted the ministry as stating.
On Monday, Syria’s interior minister, Major General Mohammad al-Shaar, called on all Syrians to vote “to express the Syrian people’s aspiration for life and stability and to confront terrorism and sabotage.”
He also denied rumors that identification cards and passports would be stamped to create a record that their holders had voted, and reassured a nervous public that the voting would take place in private booths.
Meanwhile, Syrian rebels have maintained that the elections are "pointless" - and a distraction from the real issues in Syria and the "tyranny" of Assad's regime.
Syrian refugees - now numbering into the hundreds of thousands and spread in camps throughout Lebanon and Jordan - agree.
"Where are the people who will vote for him?" one Syrian refugee, a resident of a northern Jordan camp, told CNN Monday. "Will the people he killed vote for him? Will the hundreds of thousands he has detained, who have disappeared [vote for him]?"
"[Assad] has reduced us to beggars," Hiba, a refugee holding a two-month old baby, added.
Syrians stranded in Lebanon enthusiastically told the Times that they would vote for Assad - some emphatically pledging their loyalty, some musing he was "the lesser of two evils" when compared with Islamists, and others whispering rumors that they would be killed if they returned and had not voted.
Others expressed doubts, however, vowing to boycott the elections based on a simple fact: that polling stations were open in the "no-man's land" at the Syrian-Lebanese border. Many potential voters, wary of being killed or injured after the long journey to refugee camps abroad, decided to stay home.