• November 10, 2005

Parliamentary elections kick off

Parliamentary elections kick off
Voters went to the polls Wednesday in Egypt’s most robustly contested parliamentary election in more than a half century, but no one expected the vote to produce more than a glancing blow to the lock on power held by President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party.

A record 5,000 candidates are on the ballot in the election which is spread out in three stages, beginning with Wednesday’s vote in Cairo and seven other provinces. The next two polling days are November 15 and December 1.

First reports from Cairo said campaigners for the Muslim Brotherhood were out on the streets around polling stations even before voting began, handing out leaflets saying “Islam is the solution.”

Voting appeared to be slow but steady. About 100 people voted at Heliopolis School in the first 90 minutes where Mubarak was expected to cast his ballot.

In the capital’s Maadi district, housewife Wafa Imam, 30, stood in line to vote and observed the elections appeared to be fairer than previous ones.

“In 2000, the police prevented Brotherhood supporters from entering this street to go to the polling station, but now it is different. We are being allowed to vote even though the police know that we are Brotherhood supporters,” she said.

The majority of those vying for a seat in the 454-member lower house is made up independents; 300 others are from various opposition groups and 150 supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest, but banned, Islamist group.

The Brotherhood is considered the most serious long-term political threat to Mubarak’s party, and some analysts think its supporters could win 30 to 40 seats. It held 15 seats in the previous parliament, while other opposition parties had 17 and true independents filled 34.

Apparent frustration with the expected outcome, a slightly diminished but still overwhelming majority for the Mubarak party, was reflected in an election-eve statement issued by the Kifaya movement, whose name in Arabic means “Enough.”

“Changing the parliament, even if it was possible — and its not possible — won’t mean anything,” said the group, which is also fighting what it fears will be the succession to power of Mubarak’s son, Gamal.

But this election has engaged the full range of Egypt’s political organizations, some of which — like Kifaya — boycotted a May referendum on a constitutional change to the election laws and presidential elections four months later.

The 77-year-old Mubarak easily won his fifth 6-year term but faced opposition candidates for the first time. Previous elections were yes or no referendums which returned him to power, which he has held since 1981.

Only 23 percent of Egypt’s 32 million registered voters — in a population of 72 million — turned out for the presidential contest. Mubarak took 88 percent of the vote, which an independent judicial review on Tuesday labeled as tainted.

“The secrecy that shrouded the vote counting by the special election committee cast doubts on the results and lacks transparency,” the review panel said.

Critics worry about the same problems this time around.

Khalil al-Annani, an analyst with International Politics, a journal published by the Ahram Foundation, said Mubarak’s government would not allow a strong opposition to emerge despite considerable public pressure from Washington, Egypt’s largest source of aid. The foundation, ironically, also publishes the pro-government daily, Al-Ahram.

“The regime can tolerate an opposition but not a strong opposition which will threaten it,” al-Annani told The Associated Press. “Its main concern is survival not change.”

Mubarak urged citizens to go to the polls in a televised speech Tuesday night, pledging that “this elections will be fair and free, supervised by the just Egyptian judiciary and monitored by the people, the civil society and its civic organizations.”

That development, the biggest change from previous elections, arose from a ruling by Egypt’s traditionally independent courts. They ordered Sunday that monitors from independent human rights and civic groups be allowed in polling stations to guard against the rampant fraud that has been seen in the past.

Mubarak’s government succeeded in keeping out international election monitors.

This parliamentary vote and the one that takes place in 2010 are critical for determining whether Egyptian opposition groups can compete in the 2011 presidential election.

Under new rules pushed through by Mubarak earlier this year, under heavy pressure from the United States, a political party must hold at least 5 percent of the seats in parliament to be eligible to field a presidential candidate.

In the presidential election two months ago, groups claimed the election was marred by fraud as the president faced opposition on the ballot for the first time. Ruling party members allegedly commandeered polling stations and marked ballots for the president.

Monitoring groups also worry that voter rolls are bloated with the names of people who are dead or who do not exist but whose votes are still cast for the ruling party.

On Sunday, a court struck 16,000 names from the voter list in the district of a candidate who is a leading ruling party figure. The challenge was brought by an opposition candidate after the stricken names were added to the voter roll in the weeks before the election.