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Assad’s son elected Syrian president

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DAMASCUS, Syria — Bashar Assad has been overwhelmingly elected president of Syria, officials said Tuesday — an outcome considered a foregone conclusion after a month of displays of mass loyalty to the son of late President Hafez Assad.

Bashar was the only candidate in a referendum held Monday and organized by the ruling Baath party. He won 97.29 percent of the national vote, Interior Minister Mohammed Harba said.

The younger Assad is expected to be inaugurated on July 17, becoming the first president to succeed his father in an Arab republic. Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam has said there will be a Cabinet reshuffle after the inauguration.

Harba said that of the 9.44 million eligible voters, about 8.93 million cast their ballots, a nearly 94.6 percent turnout.

Harba announced the results sitting below large portraits of Hafez and Bashar Assad at a press conference in the Interior Ministry building. Before delivering the figures, Harba gave a long speech praising the Assads and talking of the strength of Syrian democracy.

"When our people, from all walks of life, trooped to cast their votes yesterday, they were expressing their loyalty and their allegiance to Dr. (Bashar) Assad . . . and the democratic system left behind by the great deceased leader," he said.

"The unanimous saying of 'yes' by all Syrians, inside and outside, is a manifestation of the political maturity of our people," Harba said.

He was asked about reports that some people were coerced into voting.

"The masses that have been crying since President Hafez Assad's death, have they been forced to shed tears? Such reports do not harm Syria," Harba said.

Nonetheless, the outcome of the referendum, held exactly one month after Hafez Assad's death on June 10, was never in doubt. The elder Assad had ruled Syria with an iron grip for 30 years and had designated Bashar as his successor. Hafez Assad received between 99.6 and 99.99 percent of the vote in his presidential referendums, which, like Monday's, were orchestrated by the Baath party.

At polling stations across Syria, people pricked their fingers with needles Monday and marked their ballots with blood in demonstrations of support. Posters of father and son and banners hailing their virtues were strung across the streets of Damascus and other towns.

"Our blood and our children belong to Bashar Assad," said Rose Boghos, a school principal. "He's our choice for a prosperous future."

Bashar Assad voted at his old school in Damascus, where teachers and students met him with cheers, hugs and kisses. He told them he chose to vote there "because I owe you a big favor."

The main theme of the referendum campaign had been that Bashar Assad was the only Syrian capable of continuing his father's policies. The autocratic Hafez Assad gave Syria stability after years of political upheaval, coups and unrest.

The referendum was the last in a series of steps that Hafez Assad left behind to ensure the succession of his son, a former eye doctor with little political experience.

Within hours of Assad's death on June 10, parliament amended the constitution to lower the minimum age for a president from 40 to 34, Bashar Assad's age. Bashar Assad was then promoted from colonel to general and declared commander of the armed forces. The Baath party, which has enjoyed a monopoly on power in Syria since 1963, made him its leader and nominated him as its presidential candidate.