Parliamentary elections begin amid cautious hopes for change

EGYPT: Parliamentary elections begin amid cautious hopes for change

CAIRO, 10 November (IRIN) – The first round of Egyptian parliamentary elections kicked off on Wednesday, with polling stations opening to voters in eight governorates.

Coming in the wake of the country’s first-ever multi-candidate presidential elections, held in September, observers are calling the parliamentary contest one of the most important political races in recent history.

“The structure, mechanisms and procedures governing these elections are much better than in any previous races,” said Ahmed al-Meslimany, a Cairo-based political analyst.

The contest is over 444 seats, divided among Egypt’s 222 electoral districts. Ten other MPs are appointed directly by the President, bringing the total number of representatives in the Egyptian parliament to 454. Elections are held every five years.

Voting will be held in three stages, with the first beginning on 9 November; the second on 20 November; and the third on 1 December. This first phase will cover eight of Egypt’s 26 governorates, including the capital Cairo, which represent a total of 90 electoral districts and 180 seats in parliament.

In some ways, the race will represent a watershed, say watchers of Egyptian domestic politics.

According to al-Meslimany, the current parliamentary elections have been marked by a higher degree of transparency throughout the entire electoral process, with monitors from the federal judiciary and local NGOs expected to observe the contest closely.

Observers also point to the recent presidential elections – which were, on the whole, considered fairer than past races – as having set an important precedent.

“You can certainly say that the election was run more fairly than previous electoral contests,” said Hafez Abu Saada, president of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights. “There was none of the systematic intimidation that had been seen before.”

He qualified these statements by adding that the elections deserved “good, not excellent” marks for transparency.

Aside from incremental advances in terms of fairness, observers also note the importance of the parliamentary elections in light of a recent constitutional amendment, passed in May, allowing more than one candidate to run in national presidential elections.

Previously, a single candidate – backed by the National Democratic Party (NDP)-dominated parliament – would be rubber stamped in a yes-or-no referendum. In the last several polls, incumbent president Hosni Mubarak would invariably garner unrealistically high “yes” votes, often well over 90 percent.

The presidential election on 7 September, however, saw, for the first time ever, a multiplicity of contenders, with 10 candidates from 10 opposition parties competing for the top post. The government, meanwhile, proudly pointed to the new system of multiple candidacies as an indication of its reform-mindedness.

While constitutional changes allowed for multiple presidential candidacies, however, they also imposed stringent restrictions on the nomination process.

Political parties, for example, must have a minimum 5 percent of seats in parliament to nominate a candidate. Independent candidates, meanwhile, must garner the support of 250 members of different legislative bodies, 65 of whom must be members of parliament, to run.

While these restrictions were waived in the last presidential election, they will be enforced for the next presidential election, scheduled for 2011.

What makes this parliamentary contest so important, therefore, is that whoever wins the seats will likely have a role in determining presidential contenders in six years time.

The opposition: a lack of solidarity

Arrayed against the deeply-entrenched, some would say unmoveable NDP, is a small handful of opposition groups from across the political spectrum.

While Egypt boasts 17 legal opposition parties, only a few of the more well-established are fielding candidates in force, such as the liberal Wafd Party; the socialist Tagammua Party; and the pan-Arab Nasserist Party. A relative newcomer, the neo-liberal Al-Ghad Party, is also running candidates.

The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, seen by many as the country’s strongest opposition force but lacking a party license, is fielding contenders as nominal independents. This method allowed the group to secure 17 seats – since reduced to 15 in the last parliamentary race.

Most of the main opposition groupings, however, are riven with their own particular crises, from crippling internal divisions to crackdowns by the state.

The high-profile al-Ghad Party, for instance, whose candidate garnered the second highest number of votes in the recent presidential election, has been mired in a management dispute aggravated by fraud charges levelled at its leader, Ayman Nour.

The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, has seen members of its highest echelons arrested and re-arrested over much of the last six months.

In early October, the high-profile Kifaya, or “Enough,” movement, which has drawn considerable media attention by vocally calling for an end to the Mubarak regime, announced the creation of the “National Front for Change” (NFC).

The unified front aimed to consolidate the opposition enough to pose a credible challenge to the ruling party’s hold on parliament.

According to Kifaya’s Mohammed Taema, the coalition currently includes all the main, licensed political parties with the exception of the al-Ghad party.

Even the Muslim Brotherhood has “promised to coordinate with the front,” said Taema, explaining that the Islamic group would refrain from nominating candidates in districts in which NFC-affiliated candidates had strong chances of winning.

Taema added that the national front was fielding a total of 330 candidates for parliamentary seats countrywide.

According to al-Meslimany, however noble its goals, the front stands little chance. “Its components are too weak,” he said. “In my opinion, it only covers up the failure of the main opposition parties.”

The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, most often described by the state press as “banned-but-tolerated,” is expected to perform strongly on its own. Al-Meslimany predicts the group will probably win between 35 and 40 seats.

The government’s decision to allow brotherhood-affiliated candidates to use “Islam is the solution” as their campaign slogan, al-Meslimany said, would ultimately serve to boost their appeal among religious voters.

What’s more, he added, “Most government candidates aren’t as popular as those of the brotherhood.”

The group has nominated 140 candidates, all of whom will run as independents, given the group’s lack of official party status.

Few female candidates

Political affiliations aside, the current elections have been criticised for their conspicuous lack of female candidates, with less than 50 women running for seats out of a nationwide total of some 5,000 contenders.

“Women must make their political participation correspond with their rising levels of political and social awareness,” urged Surya Suhur Abdu Hassan, an al-Ghad candidate from the Muharram Bek district of Alexandria. Abdu Hassan is running on a platform devoted to addressing the needs of single mothers.

Some women candidates have also complained of outright intimidation against their campaigns. “The NDP ransacked my office because I was threatening the candidacy of a preferred male nominee,” said Samira Taher, also from the Muharram Bek district, an independent candidate and a former member of the ruling party.

A closely watched contest

Whoever is running, the elections are certain to be among the most closely watched political contests in recent memory, experts say. A corps of federal judges, as well as a barrage of local and foreign-funded NGOs, will be keeping an eye out for election day shenanigans.

“Steps taken so far seem to guarantee the fairness of tomorrow’s election,” said Nasser Amin, of the Arab Centre for the Independence of Jurisprudence. He noted that impartial judges had been dispatched to monitor some 3,000 polling stations nationwide.

Mahmoud Ali, of the Association for the Development of Democracy, however, cited a number of recently reported violations, such as NDP candidates being given priority over other candidates; nominees occasionally being intimidated by security forces; and incumbent MPs making use of state funds to finance campaigns.

Over the course of the elections, the Cairo-based association will keep an eye on polling stations in 19 governorates with a team of 1,500 trained monitors.

Other observers also note that, in the run-up to the elections, media bias in favour of NDP candidates was rife, particularly in the government-run press.

“95 percent of the election coverage in [government-run daily] Al-Ahram went to NDP candidates,” said Gamal Abdel Gawwab, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and advisor to the Cairo Centre for Human Rights.

Abdel Gawwab also pointed to “inaccurate and unprofessional descriptions and assessments of opposition candidates’ campaigns” in the state press.

Election day

On the first day of the big contest, the action at the Orman School in Cairo’s upscale Dokki district – which doubles as the area’s main polling station – was surprisingly staid. A modest line of voters enter, and then leave, one at a time.

While there’s a heavy security presence in and around the school, no official monitors could be found, although representatives of various parties sat inside, acting as informal observers.

“A monitor was here earlier,” testified one man working at the polling station, who preferred anonymity, “but he simply came in and left again.”

By contrast, the polling station in downtown Cairo’s lower-income Bulaq Abu al Eila district, festooned with colourful election posters and handbills, is packed with voters.

According to 65-year-old voter Mohamed, who drives a taxi for a living, local elections play a much bigger role amid lower-income demographics, because the less fortunate in Egypt rely more heavily on local leadership in their bid to secure their most basic rights.

“Only the people from poorer areas really care about these elections,” he said. “That’s why polling stations in the middle- or upper-class areas are relatively empty, while the competition here is fierce.”

Amid the ballot-casting, however, rumours spread that certain parties – most notably, the NDP – was offering cash to voters in exchange for votes.

“There are very obvious examples in polling stations throughout the country of party members offering money for votes,” said Gamal Eid, director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, which trained a number of lawyers for election monitoring.

However, these allegations had not yet been verified by official monitors.