Voters have been going to the polls in government-held parts of Syria in an election that few doubt will hand a resounding victory to President Bashar al-Assad.
The ballot has been castigated by rebels, government opponents and the West as a sham, amid a civil war that has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions.
For the first time in half a century Syrians have a choice of presidential candidates.
Assad’s relatively unknown opponents were approved by a parliament packed with his supporters.
Neither of Assad’s rivals, former minister Hassan al-Nouri or parliamentarian Maher Hajjar, is expected to dent significantly the 97.6 percent of the vote the president scored last time.
“I am calling upon my candidate to bring back security and peace as it was before in the country,” said Motaz Haqi, as he cast his vote in Damascus.
“Of course the elections are important, to restore security and stability for the country and to fight the mercenaries who came – that’s why there should be elections,” said another voter, Sami Al-Qadiri.
Syrian officials confidently predicted a big turnout and said that a high level of participation would be as significant as the result itself.
“The size of the turnout is a political message,” Information Minister Omran Zoabi told Reuters on Monday night.
“The armed terrorist groups have increased their threats because they fear (a high level of) participation,” he said, referring to the rebels.
“If these terrorist groups had any popularity it would be enough to ensure the failure of the election,” he said. “But they realise they have no popularity, so they want to affect the level of participation so they can say the turnout was low.”
Tens of thousands of Syrian expatriates and refugees cast their ballots last week in an early round of voting, although the number was just a fraction of the nearly 3 million refugees and other Syrians living abroad.
The election is taking place three years after protests first broke out in Syria, calling for democratic reform in a country dominated since 1970 by the Assad family. Authorities responded with force and the uprising descended into civil war.
The election – and the confidence of Assad’s supporters – follow some significant recent military gains.
Government forces, backed by allies including Iran and Lebanon’s militant group Hezbollah, have consolidated their control in central Syria but the insurgents and foreign jihadi fighters hold broad expanses of northern and eastern Syria.
Assad’s forces and Hezbollah fighters have seized back control of former rebel strongholds on the Lebanese border, cutting off supply lines for weapons and fighters, and the last rebels have retreated from the centre of the city of Homs.
Peace talks in Geneva between the government and the opposition National Coalition, which the opposition said must be based on the principle of Assad stepping aside in favour of a transitional government, collapsed in February.
Insurgents battling to overthrow Assad stepped up attacks in government-controlled areas in the buildup to the election, seeking to disrupt the vote. The main Western-backed opposition is boycotting it.