Syrians living in government-held areas were voting Wednesday in elections for the country's rubber-stamp parliament, hours ahead of the resumption of talks in Geneva to resolve the country's five-year-long civil war.
The embattled president and his wife, Asma, were among the morning voters in the capital, Damascus.
Al-Assad hailed what he said was "widescale participation by all elements of society, particularly in the matter of running for the elections."
Syrian television showed lines of voters waiting outside polling stations, and state news agency SANA claimed a high turnout across the country.
About 63 per cent of the population lived in government-held areas as of November, according to estimates by analyst Fabrice Balanche of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy.
Candidates' banners were on display in Damascus, with slogans such as "Vote for Security," "Vote for our children who died," and "We are the voices of our brave army."
Some residents in regime-controlled areas said most of the voters appeared to be loyalist students and workers employed in the public sector or by pro-Assad businesspeople.
For the first time, serving army personnel were allowed to vote. Arrangements were also made for voters displaced by the conflict from their home districts.
"The participation of the army in this election is natural because a high percentage of the Syrian people are now members of the army and the security forces," a source at the Defence Ministry said.
Some 3,500 candidates - screened for loyalty - are contesting 250 seats in the polls, the third to be held since the 2011 uprising against al-Assad began.
The outgoing parliament was elected in 2012 and al-Assad himself was elected for a third seven-year term in 2014.
The United States and France have said that they regard the elections as illegitimate, and even moderate Damascus-based opposition groups tolerated by the government are boycotting them.
"France condemns the sham elections organized by the government," a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry said.
"They are being held without a true electoral campaign, under the aegis of an oppressive regime without international observation," he added.
"The only people called to the ballot boxes are the residents of a reduced part of the territory, excluding millions of Syrians who are displaced or have sought refuge abroad," the ministry spokesman added.
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura was to resume peace talks in Geneva later in the day by meeting opposition delegates, his office said.
Syrian government negotiators were expected to join the UN-brokered talks only after the elections.
An initial round of talks was suspended in February amid opposition anger at a Russian-backed government offensive near the northern city of Aleppo which sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing.
De Mistura said last week that the only election he is interested in is a vote that the UN Security Council has said should take place within 18 months under UN supervision.
The Syrian opposition has insisted repeatedly that there can be no future role for al-Assad and have demanded that he step down even before the UN-mandated elections.
Syria's civil war, which started in 2011 after al-Assad's forces launched a brutal crackdown against protests, has cost a quarter of a million lives and driven half the country's populations from their homes, according to UN estimates.
The government retains control of much of densely populated western and central Syria. The remainder of the country is contested by al-Assad's forces, rebel groups, Kurdish federalists and the Islamic State jihadist group.
By Weedah Hamzah and Pol O Gradaigh
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