DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A Syrian lawmaker announced his candidacy for the June 3 presidential election — the first to field his bid for the top post in a vote called despite the country's relentless civil war, state-run television reported Wednesday.
President Bashar Assad has suggested he would seek another term in office but has not announced his candidacy yet. 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.
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 remain neutral, fearing for their fate should hard-line Muslims come to power.
Hajjar's identity as a secular Sunni Muslim from Aleppo underscores how the country's Sunni community is not universally anti-Assad.
State television said Hajjar was a longtime communist before leaving the party in 2000 to form the Popular Will Party in Aleppo.
Syria's opposition has denounced the presidential vote as a farce. The U.N. has warned it would negatively affect prospects for a negotiated solution to the conflict, now entering its fourth year, which has killed more than 150,000 people and driven a third of the population from their homes.
It also unclear how the government may hold a credible vote within the deeply divided country, where large areas lie outside government control and where hundreds of thousands of people live in territory that is either contested, held by rebels or blockaded by pro-government forces.
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.
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.
Throughout Syria, they wrote that at least 9.3 million people were now affected by the war in a myriad of ways: risking their health by drinking dirty war because one-third of the country's water treatment plants weren't working, some two-thirds of health centers are destroyed and some 3.5 million people live in areas under siege, or who can't be reached.
"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.