DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A Syrian lawmaker on Wednesday registered his candidacy for the June 3 presidential election, becoming the first contender in the June 3 vote that will be held in the midst of the country's civil war and has already been dismissed by the West as a farce.
President Bashar Assad has suggested he would seek another term in office but has not yet announced his candidacy. According to a new election law, the balloting must be contested by more than one candidate. Analysts said they expected at least one candidate to run against Assad to give the election a veneer of legitimacy.
Syrian opposition figures and Western leaders have blasted the decision to hold presidential elections amid the carnage from a conflict that claimed the lives of over 150,000 people and driven a third of the population from their homes.
In the first official rebuttal of the criticism, the Syrian Foreign Ministry said the decision to hold presidential elections was a "sovereign one," and warned that "no foreign power will be allowed to intervene" in the process.
In a statement, it said Syrians will choose their new leader through the ballot box, showcasing "the highest levels of democracy and freedom."
Lawmaker Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar registered his candidacy on Wednesday, said parliament speaker Jihad Laham.
Syrian state television said the 43-year-old was from the northern city of Aleppo, and that his ancestors were well-learned in Islamic law, suggesting the candidate is part of Syria's Sunni Muslim majority.
The armed rebels fighting to overthrow Assad are mostly Sunni Muslims. Syria's patchwork of minorities tend to support Assad, or have remained neutral, fearing for their future should hard-line Muslims come to power.
State television said Hajjar was a longtime communist before leaving the party in 2000 to form the Popular Will Party in Aleppo. According to the new election law, he still needs to collect the signatures of 35 lawmakers for his candidacy to become valid, state TV said.
Assad has ruled the country since taking over from his late father in 2000. Although he has not said he will run as candidate, he appeared to be in campaign mode, visiting areas recently retaken by his forces.
Separately, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mikdad denied accusations that Syrian forces used poison gas against rebel held areas recently.
"These allegations are absolutely untrue," he said in a statement published on state-run news agency SANA. The U.S. and France have said they were looking into reports that Syrian forces have used toxic gas, namely chlorine, against opposition held territories on numerous occasions recently.
Also Wednesday, the directors of five United Nations agencies that provide humanitarian aid to Syria said their appeal for $6.5 billion in emergency funding for 2014 has been mostly ignored, and warned the "worst days seem yet to come" for millions of Syrians.
With only $1.2 billion pledged, the agency heads renewed a December appeal to fund their work to help Syrians trapped in areas under blockade, caught in active warzones, and as impoverished refugees.
The December appeal "has gone largely unanswered" for a crisis affecting 9.3 million people, said a joint statement Wednesday by U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos; UNICEF director Anthony Lake; U.N. refugee commissioner Antonio Guterres; World Food Program director Ertharin Cousin, and World Health Organization director Dr. Margaret Chan.
Citing the case of the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, divided between government-controlled and rebel-held areas, they said at least one million people were in urgent need of aid. The U.N. heads wrote that roads were being blocked by different armed groups, preventing aid from arriving.
"I think it's fair to say there is a collective sense of frustration among all the agencies working in Syria," said U.N. spokesman Jens Laerke. "We are witnessing ... the gradual destruction of an entire population. I almost fear where my imagination takes me," he told The Associated Press.
With additional reporting by Zeina Karam and Diaa Hadid in Beirut, and John Heilprin in Geneva.