Syrians voted on Monday in the country's first “multiparty” parliamentary election in five decades, held against a backdrop of violence and dismissed as a sham by the opposition.
Voters cast their ballots in the capital and other regions, while in opposition strongholds residents boycotted the poll, instead staging protests and a general strike.
The election went ahead despite the unrest that has swept Syria since March 2011 when President Bashar al-Assad resorted to force in a bid to quash a revolt against his autocratic regime.
The United States said holding an election while violence is still raging “borders on ludicrous.”
“It's not really possible to hold credible elections in a climate where basic human rights are being denied to the citizens and the government is continuing to carry out daily assaults... on its own citizens,” the State Department said.
UN leader Ban Ki-moon joined the criticism.
“Only a comprehensive and inclusive political dialogue can lead to a genuine democratic future in Syria,” Ban said through his spokesman Martin Nesirky. “These elections are not taking place within that framework.
“Moreover, a democratic process cannot be successful while violence is still ongoing,” he added.
The vote, initially scheduled for last September, was postponed to May 7 after Assad announced the launch of a reform process backed by a referendum.
A total of 7 195 candidates registered to stand for the 250 seats, state news agency SANA said.
The 12 000 polling stations were due to close at 10:00 pm (19H00 GMT). Pro-regime parties led by Assad's Baath were represented under a coalition called the National Progressive Front.
The opposition dismissed the vote as a sham and a ploy by the regime to buy time and dupe the international community into believing it is serious about reforms.
“Whoever drowns Syria in blood, displaces... Syrians and shoots at the Syrian people does not have the legitimacy to draw up a constitution, an electoral law, or to run elections,” the exiled opposition Syrian National Council said.
Several towns and villages across the country, including some neighbourhoods of Damascus, held demonstrations, boycotted the vote and organised a general strike amid reports of continued violence.
Regime forces killed seven civilians on Monday in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, Idlib in the northwest and the central provinces of Hama and Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
Clashes between soldiers and rebels were also reported in several areas of Hama province as well as other regions, the Britain-based Observatory added.
“There are no signs of a national election in or the surrounding areas,” activist Nureddin al-Abdo told AFP via Skype.
“The regime is trying to delude itself that it still holds power by organising these fake elections, but it is only capable of ruling with tanks.”
Shops were closed and streets empty in several areas of Hama, Idlib, northern Aleppo, Daraa in the south and Damascus itself, activists said.
State television reported high turnout in several of the same regions.
“In Aleppo, only the main polling stations were full, and that was because the authorities brought its loyalists in to vote,” Aleppo-based activist Mohammad al-Halabi said.
“But the rest of the polling stations, where there was no media presence, were empty.”
In Yabrud village, Damascus province, children led an anti-regime demonstration, waving independence-era flags, according to amateur video posted on YouTube.
Another video showed an unidentified man in Midaq village of Hama province accusing paramilitary regime forces of having burnt down shops after their owners joined the strike.
International media freedoms watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), meanwhile, condemned the killing by Syrian regime forces of citizen journalists.
Regime forces have killed six such journalists this year, according to RSF, which named the latest as Abdul Ghani Kaakeh, 19, killed in Aleppo while filming a demonstration.
According to the Observatory, more than 11,100 people have died in violence, most of them civilians, since the anti-regime uprising broke out in March last year.
Monday's election was the first time Syria has held a vote since the adoption in February of a new constitution allowing for multi-party polls. Nine parties have been created, and seven had candidates vying for a parliamentary seat.
Political analysts do not expect the election to lead to significant change in Syria, where a tenuous UN-backed ceasefire that came into effect on April 12 has failed to take hold.
More than 600 people have died since the truce began, according to the Observatory.
UN observers deployed in the country to monitor the truce have reported violations by both regime and rebel forces.
Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said on Monday that his government was “facilitating” the work of the observers.