The Syrian regime's mouthpiece, Addounia TV, was having technical difficulties with its blanket coverage of the country's first multiparty elections on Monday. Two attempts to provide live broadcasts from its correspondent in the hardscrabble Syrian province of al-Raqqa had failed. Still, the journalist Hussein Makki, decked out in a neat cream-colored jacket over a pale blue shirt, waited patiently to deliver his report from a near-empty polling booth in a local school.
"The news from Raqqa is very good, there have been crowds of people at the polling stations from this morning," he said when the feed went up. "It's clear Syria is heading toward democracy, and God willing, it will become an Arab model, an Arab dream." Makki then walked toward a middle-aged man, standing near a pale gray ballot box, who had just voted. "What do you say to those who have asked people to stay away from polling booths?" the reporter asked, referring to the call for a boycott by the Syrian opposition, which has called the elections a farce. "I think that every citizen should participate, it's a national duty," the voter said. "As for those who wanted to boycott, they have other agendas, but democracy will not be imported, we will make it here."
The reporter then turned to one of the few other people in the room, a mustachioed man in a shiny gray suit. "We have proved to the world that Syria is fine," the man said, echoing a common government slogan. "We will forge the plan for our country."
"So you can see the views of citizens here," the reporter concluded, addressing the young female anchor in the studio. "Democracy will not come from oil-producing countries, because those countries have no democracy," he said, a clear jab at Gulf powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have spearheaded regional efforts against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Addounia had back-to-back coverage of the elections throughout the day, splitting its screen four ways (and sometimes six) to present images from polling stations across the country. Many of the feeds were tight shots focused on the election monitors seated behind ballot boxes. At one point, a shot from a town on the outskirts of the capital Damascus went black after the minutes-long feed showed that the station appeared empty. Three officials were idly waiting for voters who didn't show up during the live transmission.
Nevertheless, Syrian state media, both audiovisual and print, touted Monday's polls as a historic milestone in the country's march toward change. But it's not exactly the change the Syrian opposition and a broad swath of international leaders want. They have called on Assad to step down, and have roundly dismissed the elections as little more than political theater, an orchestrated show with a veneer of democracy overlaying the regime's fiercely autocratic core.
State media pointed to the more than 7,000 candidates vying for parliament's 250 seats as a healthy measure of active political and democratic participation. However, cynics pointed out that few of the "independent" candidates were truly independent, given that their candidacy was government-approved. In any case, power in modern Syria has never resided with the rubber-stamp parliament, but has been concentrated in the presidency. The elections are unlikely to lead to any sort of real change, and many have questioned the credibility of a poll held in the midst of a crumbling, weeks-long U.N. cease-fire riddled with infractions by both the regime and its increasingly militant opponents.
Still, you wouldn't know it from Addounia's coverage. The station had correspondents canvassing the country, including in the battered city of Homs, which has borne the brunt of the regime's wrath. Although some of the city's neighborhoods have been badly battered, Addounia's excitable female correspondent Kinda Khodr suggested there was a party atmosphere across Syria's third largest city. "I'm not going to talk about the number of voters, the camera will show you that!" she said, as the camera panned out to a crowded room that broke out into chants of "Abu Hafez," in reference to the President. Khodr then walked into an adjacent classroom, pointed to a plastic semitransparent ballot box that looked to be about three-quarters full, visual proof of robust participation.
She turned her microphone toward a young bearded man in a gray tracksuit who was about to cast his vote. "Freedom comes from here, not from killing and destruction," the man said. "Whoever wants freedom, come here. Vote. This is freedom."
"What do you want from our elected representatives?" the reporter asked.
"I am a laborer, I just finished work, look at my hands," the man said. "I would just like our representatives to reduce prices."
"Wafaa," Khodr said, using the first name of the perfectly coiffed female anchor in the studio. "This is the voice of Homs, of the Homsi street," she said, as people chanted "God, Syria, Bashar!"
"I just want to speak to a few other people," the reporter said, turning to the crowd. "Who did you vote for?" she asked a man with cropped gray hair.
"The Baath, because I'm a member of the party," he said, referring to the President's organization.
Nationalistic poems and songs broke up the monotonous broadcast. "Who are you, when 780 satellite stations are against you?" asked one of the few ads interspersed within the coverage. "Who are you when NATO is against you?" the voice-over said, asking a formulaic question that was repeated with "NATO" replaced by "the Arab League," "the United Nations," "the Gulf monarchies." "'Who are you?' Do you know who you are? You are Syrian, and proud!"
Other proud Syrians, on the opposite side of the political divide, had their own take on the day's elections. In one amateur clip uploaded to YouTube, reportedly from al-Bab, northeast of Aleppo, a boisterous crowd of young men gathered around a box draped in the Syrian flag from pre-Baath days. A young man read the name of each "candidate" from a slip of paper, to cheers and applause before dropping it into the box. "The revolutionaries nominate al-Bab's martyrs," the cameraman said. Eight "candidates" were nominated in the clip, in between rowdy chants of "God is great," "the martyr is beloved by God" and "victory to Islam."
The sentiment was repeated in Madaya, on the outskirts of the capital, as well as in the fiercely rebellious town of Zabadani, which also held its own mock elections. Instead of candidates' posters, the rebels plastered images of their dead across town. "This is our council, these are our candidates," the cameraman said.
In the short clip, a man spray-painted an image of Assad on the ground before stepping over it. "We will be victorious," a bearded man in a red cap who makes no effort to conceal his identity said. His opponents said the same thing.
As the night dragged on, so too did Addounia's coverage. Khodr, the excitable reporter based in Homs, was back onscreen, this time reportedly in Baba Amr, the battered neighborhood destroyed by a weeks-long confrontation between rebels and loyalists. Sunglasses perched on her free-flowing locks, Khodr stood outside a school whose white walls were clearly riddled with bullet holes. Posters of Bashar Assad and his late father and predecessor, Hafez, were plastered at the polling station. "Why are you voting?" she asked a woman in a black hijab. In a day of spin, the woman's response seemed to be a fleeting moment of unscripted honesty. "I don't know," she said, "but I'm here."