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After Assad's election triumph, fear grips stay-at-home Syrians

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - (The identity of the reporter has been withheld for security reasons)

Two days after Syria's presidential election, there are signs of anxiety among those who boycotted the vote - and who don't have the ink stain on their finger that would show they played their part in Bashar al-Assad's victory.

Assad won Tuesday's election with nearly 89 percent support, according to officials, triggering celebrations in some government-controlled parts of Syria where voting took place.

Authorities said 73 percent of eligible Syrians cast their votes - a remarkably high figure in a country devastated by a conflict which drove 3 million people to flee abroad - dipping their finger in permanent ink to show they had taken part.

"Let's see whose finger has no ink," the host of a local radio show said on Thursday, playing half-jokingly on fears that those who did not vote could face consequences.

On election day, some people tried to find an alternative to the official polling station ink. "Can't we use regular ink from the stationery store?" asked a young man who didn't want to vote but feared he could be arrested for boycotting the election.

"Are they going to flag down me at checkpoints and ask for my army papers?" he said, referring to his mandatory military service which he has postponed by purposely failing the final two parts of his university engineering course.

Another Damascene, who works in a health club, said he stayed at home with his wife for 48 hours to avoid punishment for not voting. "And I don’t know if I should go into work later today. What if they all have ink on their finger and they ask how come I don't?" he said.

He said that when family and friends called him on election day to ask if he had voted, he lied and said he had.

"I don't want any headache, especially not on the phone. Those who know how much I oppose Assad already know that I didn't go, and those who don’t know can keep their illusions," he said.

"I haven’t been able to do anything for the rebels, because I live here and everything is under tight control and I worry about my family. So on election day, not voting was the least I could do," he added.

"OBITUARY OF THE CONSPIRACY"

Assad's international allies, including Iran, Russia and the Lebanese militant group and political movement Hezbollah, all praised the election.

"The election of Bashar al-Assad is the obituary of the conspiracy which aimed at destroying (Syria)," Mohammad Raad, leader of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc, was quoted as saying by Hezbollah's Al Manar television.

Russia said a team of parliamentary observers from countries mostly sympathetic to Assad had found the poll fair, free and transparent, and criticized nations that denounced the vote.

The European Union said the election had been illegitimate and undermined efforts to find a solution to a civil war which has killed 160,000 people, while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the vote as a "great big zero".

Yasin Aktay, head of the foreign affairs department of Turkey's ruling AK Party, said elections in Syria and Egypt - where former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi got 96.9 percent of votes in a low turnout - were both "a complete comedy".

"In Syria there was an election without ballot boxes, nobody could see where they put the ballot boxes. In Egypt there was an election without voters," Aktay said.

Many Syrians voting this week appeared to be motivated less by politics and more by a yearning for stability.

For minority Alawite, Christian and Druze communities, the Alawite president offers a defense against Islamist insurgents and the promise - however remote - of a return to stability.

The official figures also suggest that many majority Sunni Muslims turned out to vote for Assad, whether out of weariness with the conflict or fear of retribution if they did not vote.

Many of Assad's opponents also ended up voting.

"We live here, and we have to perform in this theater," said a mother of military-age sons. "If voting means we stay off the radar and no one bothers us, no one bothers my kids, then it's worth it. Besides, it's not as if my vote made a difference anyway. He was going to win no matter." she said.

"Having the ink mark matters. I feel I did the right thing," she said, showing her inked index finger.

(Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker in Ankara and Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow; Editing by Dominic Evans and Giles Elgood)

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