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Thursday, February 11, 1999 Published at 21:04 GMT

World: Middle East

Assad wins 99.98% in poll

No suprises as the interior minister announces the result

Fractionally less than 100% of Syrians voted in favour of another seven-year term for President Hafez al-Assad, the country's ruler for the last 29 years, according to official figures.

Of an electorate of more than 9.1 million voters, only 219 votes were said to have been cast against his unopposed candidacy.

More than 8.96 million - 99.98% of the electorate - voted "yes" and there were 917 invalid papers, Syrian Interior Minister Muhammad Harbah announced on Syrian radio.

President al-Assad was nominated in January by the ruling Ba'ath Party, a nomination subsequently endorsed by the People's Assembly. His current term, his fourth, expires in March.

Party time

The lack of contest notwithstanding, victory celebrations started in towns and cities around Syria, and among the million-strong Syrian community in Lebanon, long before the votes were counted.

[ image: 'One people, two countries' as the saying goes; Syrians celebrate in Beirut]
'One people, two countries' as the saying goes; Syrians celebrate in Beirut
In the capital Damascus on Thursday the referendum result is being marked by massive all-night concerts featuring singers from Lebanon and other Arab states.

Wednesday's vote was scheduled to take place on Monday, but was postponed because of the death of King Hussein of Jordan, at whose funeral President al-Assad made a surprise appearance.

The only visible note of discord concerning the referendum was in Lebanon, where Lebanese Christian opposition leaders criticised the presence of 24 polling booths around Lebanon as an infringement of sovereignty.

Syria has maintained a strong military presence and political influence over Lebanon since it moved in to stop the civil war in 1990.

Result not in doubt for iron ruler

President Hafez al-Assad has ruled Syria with an iron grip since his so-called Corrective Movement began in 1970.

President al-Assad won 99.99% of the vote in the referendum in 1991.

Neighbouring Iraq held a similar referendum in 1995 which Saddam Hussein recorded a similar crushing victory.

But if President al-Assad has no cause for concern from the polls, a question-mark hangs over his health. He had a heart attack as long ago as 1983.

Syria's succession

As the Assad era is extended into the 21st Century, a BBC correspondent who visited Syria recently, says many Syrians are privately wondering what will come next.

There have been reports of intermittent hospital treatment for the Syrian leader in the last few years.
[ image: Pondering mortality in Amman on Monday]
Pondering mortality in Amman on Monday

Diplomats who have seen the president recently in Damascus report that he is energetic and alert but correspondents at King Hussein's funeral say there were moments in Amman when the 68-year-old leader showed his age.

Few doubt that Mr al-Assad has lost any of his political ruthlessness or tactical acumen.

It is widely believed that the president's son, Bashar, is being groomed to follow his father into office.

Having successfully led the drive to computerise the entire Syrian infrastructure, Bashar al-Assad has now been handed the Lebanon portfolio.

Responsibility for Syria's neighbouring satellite state is designed to add international credibility to any future presidential bid.

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