Denting ruling party majority

Denting ruling party majority
When dust settles on the general elections that begin on Wednesday in Cairo and are spread in stages across the country over the next month, the balance of power in Egypt is unlikely to have altered much.

The ruling National Democratic Party that has traditionally acted as a dispenser of patronage and prop for President Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic rule, will still dominate parliament. Its majority of over 85 per cent may be marginally reduced.

The issue is whether a fairer contest and one more closely scrutinised at home and in Washington than any previous election in Egypt, will help re-energise politics and give impetus to political reform.

Much will depend on how much pressure Mr Mubarak himself feels under. After winning presidential elections that provided no real contest in September, he pledged to use his fifth six-year term in office to deepen democracy and, among other changes, strengthen parliament itself.

On the surface, the run-up to polling day has been freer of skulduggery than past elections marred by thuggish enforcement of the NDP’s supremacy. For the first time ballot boxes will be transparent and NGOs will monitor inside polling stations.

Room for serious abuse does still exist. Ghada Shahbandar, founder of a website monitoring the polls, says up to 30 per cent of names on the voter register are duplicates. In one Cairo constituency, NGOs have found an empty building site where 1,200 names are registered.

“During the presidential elections we noted these irregularities but none have been corrected,” she says.

Past voting habits already vastly favour the NDP. The few Egyptians who do vote, tend to choose the candidate most likely to negotiate benefits for their constituencies from the bureaucracy. These are likely to be in the ruling party.

A tour of opposition rallies as campaigns closed revealed how thin on the ground the competition is. In the short time since Mr Mubarak eased restrictions, old socialist and centrist opposition parties have struggled to regain relevance.

El Ghad, the only new officially sanctioned party representing a liberal and secular alternative to the NDP, has itself come near to collapse.

Analysts have long argued that the best way to balance the influence of Islamism in Egypt – often used by the NDP as an excuse for maintaining an authoritarian status quo – would be to allow alternative voices to flourish.

Yet recent official harassment of Ayman Nour, El Ghad’s leader and runner up in the presidential elections with 7 per cent, raises serious doubts about the regime’s commitment to competition on its own turf.

Instead, the main beneficiaries of the freer environment in the run up to Wednesday’s poll have been the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the only organised opposition force.

The Brothers are running 120 candidates as independents. They have been able for the first time to campaign openly under the movement’s banner. Analysts believe they may win around 50 of the parliament’s 444 seats.

 Egypt\’s hotly contested election ever
Egyptians begin electing a new parliament on Wednesday. With more candidates than ever running, the election is expected to be one of the most hotly contested polls in Egypt for over half a century.
There is an exceptionally high number of candidates – more than 5,000 are vying for 444 seats in parliament – and a large number of parties and independents are running for the first time.

This apparent enthusiasm reflects not only the importance the political class in Egypt attaches to this election, but also a political landscape that is in a state of flux.

But there’s another unusual element to this poll.

In established democracies, elections are fought over jobs, the economy, public services or major legislative disputes – the bread and butter of politics.

Not in Egypt, which is still struggling to make the transition from a one-party state to a genuine multi-party system; the main challenge seems to be the transition itself.

Hence issues like the conduct of the poll, voter registration, opposition access to the state-run media and whether the new parliament will be yet another rubber stamp for the government tend to dominate the campaign.

This is not to say that the campaign has been short on promises.

The ruling National Democratic Party, for example, is promising to create millions of jobs and double the salary of state employees.

But from a party that has been in power for some three decades, and whose name has become almost synonymous with nepotism, corruption and incompetence in the eyes of the public, such promises are not usually taken seriously.

The biggest opposition group in the country, the outlawed, Muslim Brotherhood, has repeated its well-worn pledge that “Islam is the solution”, ie an Islamic state will bring an end to all of Egypt’s woes.

The Brotherhood is not allowed to field candidates officially, but its members run as independents. It has campaigned under this controversial banner before, and did better than other legal opposition groups.

Unlike previous elections, the government has allowed the Brotherhood to campaign freely so far.

It is also allowing civil society groups to monitor the vote and for the first time, ballot boxes will be transparent.

In doing so the ruling NDP is not only bowing to international pressure, but is also trying to shore up its dwindling credibility.

If the overall conduct of the poll turns out to be free and fair then this year’s election will for the first time show the real extent of the Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity – an issue which has for decades puzzled observers.

The possibility of an Islamist takeover has also been used by the ruling NDP as an argument against allowing the Brotherhood to operate legally.

Galvanised by the government’s apparent willingness to allow greater participation, other opposition parties, which are still small and lack grass root support, have buried their differences and formed a coalition. They hope this will give them a better chance of reducing the NDP’s overwhelming majority.

Wild card

But the wild card in this election may turn out to be the exceptionally large number of independent candidates, many of whom are wealthy businessmen – including some NDP defectors.

In a country where people still vote for a person and not for a party, the independents may prove to be the election’s biggest surprise.

If independents take substantial numbers of seats, and decide to stay independent rather than join a party, they may play a decisive role in shaping the new parliament and underline the changing nature of Egyptian politics.

In 2000 many defectors from the NDP ran as independents, won seats and then rejoined the ruling party.

The election is to be held in three phases, staggered over nearly a month.

The aim of phasing the election is to enable judges to prevent fraud at 11,0000 polling stations in every phase.

In the first phase, voters in Cairo and seven other provinces will elect 164 candidates, out of a total of 444 deputies.

Although no-one doubts that the NDP will be returned – possibly with a reduced majority – this election will be closely watched both in Egypt and abroad for indications of long-term political changes in the country.