Syrians were heading to polling stations in government-held parts of the war-torn country on Sunday to elect a new parliament amid strict health measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
The vote is the third to take place in Syria since conflict began in March 2011.
The war has killed more than 400,000, displaced half the country’s population and displaced more than five million as refugees, mostly into neighbouring countries.
This year’s vote follows a new wave of US sanctions that came into effect last month, and a campaign to fight corruption that saw a wealthy cousin of President Bashar Assad come under pressure to pay back tens of millions of dollars to the state.
The elections also coincide with Syria’s worst economic crisis and a currency crash, which has dragged more of the country’s population into poverty.
Some 1,656 government-approved candidates are running this year for the 250-seat People’s Assembly. The total number of eligible voters has not been announced.
No vote was being held in the northwestern province of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria, or in the country’s northeast, which is controlled by US-backed Kurdish-led fighters.
As in previous elections in Syria, the vote will produce a rubber-stamp body loyal to the president.
Inside polling stations, workers were wearing masks and gloves, and voters had to use their own pens in the sanitised booths. Once their ballots were cast, they had to leave immediately, as no gatherings were allowed inside. People also had to keep a safe distance while waiting their turn.
Mr Assad and his wife Asma, both wearing masks, voted on Sunday morning in Damascus at the Ministry of Presidential Affairs.
Information minister Imad Sarah said the vote “emphasises the cohesion of the Syrian homeland, that after nine years of war, Syria will not kneel”.
Mr Assad has twice postponed the country’s parliamentary elections this year in light of restrictions in place to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Mr Assad himself is not standing for election.
Syria, which had a pre-war population of 22 million, has reported 496 coronavirus cases and 25 deaths. But the actual numbers are likely to be far higher and increases have been reported in recent days.
Syria’s last parliament was elected in April 2016, when large parts of the country were outside of government control and people there did not take part in the polling. Since then, Mr Assad’s forces have captured much of Syria with the help of his allies Russia and Iran.