Election roadmap takes shape

Election roadmap takes shape

President Hosni Mubarak yesterday officially signalled the start of the race for the next parliamentary elections, issuing a decree stating that the first round of polling be held on 28 November. The decree said the second round would be held on 5 December and that the newly elected People’s Assembly — Egypt’s lower-house of parliament — should begin meeting on 13 December.

Another presidential decree opening the registration process for candidates on 28 October is expected within the next few days.

This announcement will coincide with the end of the National Democratic Party’s (NDP) three-stage selection process for the party’s 508 candidates. The internal polls, designed to allow 1.5 million party members a say in who will represent them, began on 9 October and ends on Sunday. The NDP’s one-day selection of its female candidates for a quota of 64 seats will take place on 27 October.

Once the door to registration opens commentators expect to see a rush of candidates with the exception of three political parties — the Democratic Front led by Al-Ahram writer Osama El-Ghazali Harb, the Free Constitutional Socialist Party led by political activist Mamdouh Qenawi and the Ghad (Tomorrow) Party led by political dissident Ayman Nour.

Opposition forces, including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, have rejected ex-International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed El-Baradei’s call to boycott the parliamentary polls, and even intend to field as many candidates as possible.

Leaders of the Coalition of Egyptian Opposition Parties (CEOP) — which includes the Wafd, Tagammu and Nasserists — will put up 350 candidates between them, possibly more. Another second coalition of 10 smaller opposition parties has announced it will be fielding 400 candidates. A total of at least 750 opposition party-based candidates will be on hand to battle it out with the ruling NDP 508 parliamentary hopefuls.

Mohamed Badei, supreme guide of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, announced on 9 October that the group will contest 30 per cent of constituencies, a figure that suggests it will field between 130 and 150 candidates.

As for independents, Al-Ahram analyst Amr Hashim Rabei predicts that between 2,500 and 3,000 will register as candidates.

"As has long been the case in parliamentary elections the majority of those standing as independents will belong to the NDP," Rabei said. "The NDP has developed a cumbersome selection process aimed at whittling down the 2,900 party members who put themselves as possible candidates. What it has not done is make clear its response to thousands of others who refused to join the selection process and announced early on that they would be running as independents."

On Tuesday 19 October President Mubarak issued a decree amending three articles of the 1956 law on the exercise of political rights which triggered a furore among opposition forces. Minister of State for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Moufid Shehab argues the three amendments are necessary to regulate the vote in seats reserved for female candidates.

"The first amendment allows auxiliary polling stations, headed by a member of the judiciary aided by three assistants, to be used for votes in both general and women-only seats," Shehab said. "The second amendment allows two kinds of ballot boxes to be used at polling stations, one for general constituency votes, the second for women-only seats, and for separate, colour coordinated ballots.

"The results of the counts for both women-only and general seats will be reviewed by the general committees appointed by the Higher Election Commission [HEC] which is constitutionally entrusted with supervising the polls," said Shehab. Should irregularities be found in just one of the processes, the third amendment makes it clear this will not invalidate both results.

The legislation passed in June creating 64 women- only seats in the next parliament did not, Shehab explained, fix regulations for the counting and processing of votes.

"The boundaries of women-only districts differ from existing constituencies and so new regulations had to be devised. The political rights law was amended to put in place the procedures necessary for the counting and processing of votes in the new seats."

Also on Tuesday, the Administrative Court rejected a petition questioning the legality of reserving parliamentary seats for female candidates.

The opposition is unhappy about the changes. Rifaat El-Said, leader of the leftist Tagammu Party, said that while the amendments might be necessary to cover a constitutional gap it is disappointing that time for the changes was found when opposition demands for amendments that would guarantee a free and fair poll were dismissed on the grounds that there was too little time to enact them.

CEOP leaders, says El-Said, repeatedly called upon President Mubarak to amend the political rights law to enhance the transparency of elections, yet each time "NDP leaders claimed that the amendment of the law would be very difficult because time was limited."

"If it is possible for three amendments to the political rights law to be issued in a single day why was it deemed impossible to accommodate opposition demands for stronger guarantees," he asks. "In the end we must ask ourselves which is more important, ensuring the fairness of the general poll, or fixing voting procedures for a handful of women-only seats."

Democratic Front Chairman Osama El-Ghazali Harb says the amendments illustrate just how determined NDP leaders were on finding excuses to ignore opposition demands aimed at a fair vote.

"We know from the very beginning that the NDP lacked the political will to ensure that the elections are free and fair. This was the reason the Democratic Front decided to boycott the polls," said Harb.

"NDP leaders found enough time to talk to the opposition about their demands, what they lack is the political will to ensure the elections are fair," says Fouad Badrawi, deputy chairman of the Wafd Party. "Despite this dragging of feet the Wafd and other parties decided not to boycott the polls. It is our participation that will expose the NDP’s practices and intentions."

In a meeting with the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), Shehab defended the NDP’s position.

"The party responded positively to opposition demands. The HEC will have full authority over the polls, monitors from civil society organisations will be allowed, and foreign embassies in Egypt and representatives of the foreign media will be free to cover the vote."

Amendments to the political rights law demanded by the opposition, he continued, "involved scrapping the individual candidacy system and staffing the HEC exclusively with judges from the Court of Cassation".

"Such contentious issues cannot be addressed while parliament is in recess. Changing the election system sometimes takes years, while altering the character of judicial membership of the HEC is unlikely to make a difference, and impugns the integrity of these judges already on the commission."

On Tuesday the HEC granted permits for dozens of NGOs to monitor November’s poll.

The total number of seats in the new parliament, out of which 508 will be contested by approximately 4,400 candidates. Ten MPs will be appointed by the president.