Syria lawmaker becomes first presidential challenger

A communist MP has registered as the first challenger for the Syrian presidency in a June election expected to return incumbent Bashar al-Assad to power, the parliament speaker said Wednesday.

"We have received information from the higher constitutional court that member of parliament Maher Abdel Hafiz Hajjar has filed his candidacy for the post of president of the Syrian Arab Republic," Mohammad Lahham said, quoted on state television.

News of Hajjar's candidacy came two days after Lahham announced that Syria would hold a presidential election on June 3.

It also comes after the UN, the Arab League, the Syrian opposition and the United States slammed the election announcement as a "farce", a "parody of democracy" and an obstacle to a peace process dubbed Geneva II aimed at ending Syria's three-year war.

A foreign ministry official on Monday lashed out at the United Nations and its peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi for "obstructing" the Geneva II peace talks.

The ministry, meanwhile, said in a statement: "The Syrian Arab Republic reaffirms that its decision to carry out presidential elections in Syria is a totally sovereign, Syrian decision that does not allow any intervention."

Presidential hopeful Hajjar was born in Aleppo in 1968 and has been a member of the Syrian Communist Party since 1984, state television said.

He "took part in the peaceful, popular movement at the start of the crisis," it added, referring to Arab Spring-inspired demonstrations against Assad that erupted in March 2011.

The protests quickly escalated into an armed uprising in the face of a deadly crackdown by Assad loyalists, triggering a descent into civil war.

Assad, who became president on the death of his father Hafez in 2000 and whose current term ends on July 17, is expected to stand and win another seven-year term despite the raging conflict.

It will be the first presidential election organised by the regime -- previously a referendum was held on a single candidate but that system was replaced by an amendment to the constitution in response to demands for reforms.

Election rules require candidates to have lived in Syria for the past decade, effectively preventing key opposition figures in exile from standing.

The conflict has killed more than 150,000 people and nearly half of Syria's population has been displaced.

Violence continues to ravage many parts of the country, even reaching the heart of the capital, which has come under repeated mortar fire by opposition fighters on its outskirts.

The government has not laid out how it plans to hold a credible election with large swathes of the country outside its control.