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Assad sets Syria vote to end near 50-year Baath monopoly

Update: February, 16/2012 - 12:15

DAMASCUS – Syria's president, who is fighting an Arab Spring-inspired revolt, called on Wednesday a constitutional referendum that would effectively end nearly 50 years of single-party rule, state media said.

A day after rejecting UN allegations of crimes against humanity, Bashar al-Assad called the referendum for February 26, in a move aimed at placating growing global outrage over the bloodshed.

The proposed charter drops Article 8, which declared the ruling Baath Party as the "leader of the state and society," allowing for a multi-party system, state television said.

The president must be a Muslim man and may serve a maximum of two seven-year terms, although it is unclear if this would apply to Assad, who is already in his second term.

In April Assad scrapped emergency rule in force since 1963 when the Baathists took power in a coup d'etat. But he has repeatedly promised reforms that have failed to materialise since the uprising erupted in March.

The embattled 46-year-old president, who succeeded his late father Hafez in 2000, said the constitution would usher in a "new era" for Syria, SANA state news agency reported.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said "we certainly believe a new constitution to end one-party rule in Syria is a step forward. It is a welcome idea and we hope the constitution will be adopted."

The opposition Syrian National Council is likely to reject the constitution, given that one of its main guiding principles is "to overthrow the regime using all legal means."

Regardless, the proposed charter rules out most of the opposition as it bans religious parties and dual nationals, preventing the SNC, which includes the Muslim Brotherhood, and most of its leadership from running for office.

The SNC, the main opposition group which is hoping to win recognition abroad as Syria's legitimate authority, has agreed that current leader Burhan Ghalioun will remain in place for another three months, a group spokeswoman said late Wednesday. AFP

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