Michael Jansen: Wooing voters with goodies, not action

Michael Jansen: Wooing voters with goodies, not action

 Next Sunday Egyptians go to the polls to choose 508 members of parliament from among 5,200 candidates. Among those standing are 380 women and 80 Coptic Christians. Sixty-four seats are reserved for women. Some 1,100 candidates represent 14 political parties while 4,100 are running as independents.

The independents include members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) which is fielding 780 official candidates rather than one per seat, as originally intended. This means that some will be competing for the same seats. The party decided to allow more than one member to stand in a single constituency when it discovered that they enjoy similar levels of popularity or where NDP candidates face strong challengers.

The NDP is eager to avoid what happened in the elections of 2000 and 2005 when NDP members who did not receive official backing resigned, stood as independents, and defeated many of those who had been fielded by the party. Although the independents returned to party ranks, the leadership was rankled over their refusal to accept discipline as well as the fact that voters chose them over official candidates.

The liberal Wafd party, Egypt’s oldest, has put forward 250 candidates, the second largest list of official contestants. The second largest group of independents has been fielded by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition group which is banned but tolerated. The Brotherhood gave its support to 132 candidates but this was reduced to 75 by election commission disqualifications. The movement has adopted a the slogan, “Islam is the solution” although Egyptian law bars religion in politics.

Since the campaign began more than 900 of its election agents and supporters have been detained. There were clashes in Cairo and Alexandria on Friday between the security forces and Brotherhood backers. The Gulf Today was told by an Egyptian source that more clashes are expected and could intensify ahead of voting day.

The NDP wants to curb the enthusiasm of Brotherhood supporters in order to avoid a repeat of the result of the 2005 election when the Brotherhood won 88 of the 444 seats in the popular assembly. In this election, the movement’s leaders expect it will not win more than 10-15 seats.

The Brotherhood had initially chosen to boycott the poll in line with a demand put forward by Nobel peace prize winner Muhammad Elbaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who retired from the agency and returned home with the aim of launching a reform movement.

But the Brotherhood changed its mind because parties that do not participate in the political process, however flawed and managed, fade from the scene.

In the 2005 poll a total of 121 opposition candidates won seats, 25 per cent. This was the largest representation of the opposition in the popular assembly since the resumption of multi-party elections in Egypt in 1976.

On the one hand, this was a breakthrough the NDP is not prepared to tolerate, particularly since next year Egypt is set to hold a presidential election and the ruling party is divided over whether President Hosni Mubarak, now 82, or his son Gamal, 47, should stand.

On the other hand, the NDP does want a credible number of opposition candidates to succeed as their presence in parliament confers legitimacy on elections designed to periodically renew NDP rule.

Since the last parliamentary election the Egyptian economy has faced rising prices of foodstuffs commencing in 2007 and the global recession that began in 2008. As a result of the recession Egypt suffered losses of transit revenue from the Suez Canal.

Egyptian workers have returned home from Dubai, depriving the country of an important source of external income and boosting the ranks of the unemployed. Revenue from exports fell by more than 10 per cent. This past summer Egyptians grew anxious when Russia — a main source of wheat for the bread that is a staple of the diet — announced it will not be exporting grain this season because of crop failure due to drought and fires that consumed vast areas of grain. In a bid to avert popular protests, the government secured sufficient supplies of grain, launched infrastructure projects to employ the unemployed, and maintained subsidies on essential foodstuffs.

Candidates in tune with the concerns of their constituents in poor districts are seeking to secure voters by distributing meat, clothing and money. As The Egyptian Gazette reported, the campaign turned into a competition over the stomachs of voters rather than over their minds. Although the election commission has set a limit of Egyptian pounds 200,000 ($35,000), many candidates have already spent more than that amount. Personalities not parties or programmes count in this election.

In central Cairo, there is little evidence of the campaign. The stern faces of worthy candidates stare out from a few posters nailed on trees along the Nile corniche. The streets are thronged with cheerful Egyptians of all ages and stations celebrating the waning Eid rather than focusing on the election. Eighty per cent (yes, 80 per cent) will not cast their ballots even though voting is mandatory and, in theory, fines can be exacted for failure to participate in elections. But collecting fines from 80 per cent of the electorate would be a Herculean task.

Egyptians, like many disillusioned voters in the Western world, do not believe their votes count. As Ayman, a driver, who has a growing fleet of vehicles, remarked as we sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Qasr Al Nil bridge, “I never voted in my life. We do not have anything to do with the authorities. We cannot influence them. We live for our families and work to provide for them.”