2 politicians named as candidates to run against Syria's Assad

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BEIRUT -- Syrian authorities on Sunday named two politicians from tolerated opposition groups as official contenders in June against an imposing incumbent: President Bashar Assad, the overwhelming favorite.

The presidential election scheduled for June 3 will be the first since Syria scrapped its previous referendum system in favor of direct voting.

The supreme constitutional court, which oversees the balloting process, whittled the official number of presidential contenders down to three, including Assad. Previously, 24 prospective candidates had registered.

Few if any doubt that Assad, who is seeking his third seven-year term, will emerge with a landslide victory. He enjoys an extraordinary power of incumbency.

Likenesses of Assad are ubiquitous in government-controlled areas of Syria, where most of the voting will be conducted. The official media have long presented Assad as the indispensable bulwark against Islamic militants and "terrorists," the official term for anti-government rebels fighting to oust him.

While his supporters laud Assad as the nation's savior, his critics call him a tyrant who has led the nation to ruin. It is still unclear if any voting will be held in vast stretches of Syria that are contested or under rebel control. Syrians living outside the country will be able to vote in Syrian embassies, the government says.

Opposition advocates have dismissed the elections as a sham designed to cement Assad's rule. The government has sought to portray the balloting as a model of democratic overhaul and resolve in the midst of a punishing war that began more than three years ago.

The two candidates who will oppose Assad are Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar, 43, a former Communist Party activist and member of parliament who is said to be from a prominent religious family in the northern city of Aleppo; and Hassan Abdullah Nouri, 54, a Damascus native and former lawmaker who previously headed the nation's chamber of industry. Both are linked to opposition blocs recognized by the government.

Neither was reported to be associated with anti-government demonstrations in 2011 that were the catalyst for the armed uprising against Assad's rule.

Syrian authorities gave no reason why the other 21 would-be candidates were disqualified.

Assad was elected president in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez Assad, who had led Syria since 1970. Bashar Assad was re-elected without opposition in 2007.

The armed rebellion is dominated by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, while Syria's mix of Christian and Muslim minorities, including Assad's own Alawite sect, tend to support the president, fearful of their fates should hard-line Sunni Muslims come to power.

On Sunday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said infighting between the al-Qaida breakaway group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front has killed 62 rebels and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes in the area over several days of fighting. The fighting is taking place around three villages in Deir el-Zour province near the Iraqi border.


Associated Press contributed.


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