DAMASCUS, Syria — On billboards and in posters taped to car windows, new portraits of President Bashar Assad filled the streets of Damascus on Sunday as Syria officially opened its presidential campaign despite a crippling civil war that has devastated the country and left large chunks of territory outside of government control.
The Syrian opposition and its Western allies have denounced the June 3 election as a sham designed to lend Assad, who is widely expected to win another seven-year term, a veneer of electoral legitimacy. The government, meanwhile, has touted the vote as the political solution to the conflict.
The election comes more than three years into a revolt against Assad's rule that has killed more than 150,000 people and forced more than 2.5 million to seek refuge abroad. The war has destroyed entire cities and towns, left the economy in tatters, and set alight sectarian hatreds in a society once known for its tolerance.
With the country so bitterly divided, it remains unclear how the government intends to hold a credible vote in the middle of the conflict. But officials have brushed aside such doubts, and have forged ahead undeterred.
Assad faces two other candidates in the race: Maher Hajjar and Hassan al-Nouri, both members of the so-called internal opposition tolerated by the government. But the men are relatively unknown, and neither has the full weight of the state behind him like Assad does.
That distinction was on full display Sunday on the streets of Damascus.
On the bustling Thawra Street in the center of the city, two new Assad billboards greeted the crowds below. One shows Assad, dressed in a gray suit and blue shirt, along with the word "Together." The second billboard just reads "Together," along with the president's signature.
Several cars flying national flags and photos of the president blasted nationalist songs as they cruised the capital's streets in a show of support for Assad, who has ruled the country since taking over from his father, Hafez, in 2000.
In contrast, there were no portraits or banners of the two other candidates seen on the streets.
Riyadh Shahin, 44, a government employee, said that he intends to vote for Assad.
"I am still convinced that he was still the sole leader who can achieve the aspirations of the Syrian people," Shahin said. "In my opinion, Assad is the suitable person for this post, because without him, Syria was now divided. He is the sole guarantee to keep Syria strong."
The presence of other candidates on the ballot represents a shift in Syria. Until now, Assad and his father have been elected by referendums in which they were the only candidates and voters cast yes-or-no ballots.
Last month, the Syrian parliament approved an electoral law opening the door to a multi-candidate race. The new law, however, placed conditions effectively ensuring that almost no opposition figures would be able to run. It states that any candidate must have lived in Syria for the past 10 years and cannot have any other citizenship.
Analysts say that the vote was likely set for mid-summer to give the military and its allied militias time to seize more ground, particularly key urban centers, before citizens head to the polls.
With a mix of brute force and negotiations, the government secured a major victory last week, striking a deal with the last rebel holdouts in the central city of Homs. Under the agreement, some 2,000 opposition fighters and civilians in the Old City received safe passage to rebel areas to the north, handing the government control of Homs — the country's third-largest city.
Associated Press writer Ryan Lucas in Beirut contributed to this report.