Better the first time
|Friday, November 18,2005 00:00|
Better the first time
What appeared to be the more positive aspects of the first round of the 9 November parliamentary polls were markedly diluted in Tuesday’s run-off elections in which 266 candidates battled for 133 parliamentary seats in 74 constituencies in eight governorates. There were many reported incidents in Giza, Beni Sweif and Assiut in which local monitors said policemen had abandoned the neutrality they showed in last week’s polls and prevented voters from reaching ballot boxes in some polling stations where competition was particularly fierce between candidates from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Police also did not intervene in stopping the proliferation of vote-buying, bribery and thuggery, which monitors said were left to "master the situation in almost all polling stations".
"This ’negative neutrality’ on the part of police allowed violence to dominate and what appeared as neutral was in fact laid in the hands of the NDP," scoffed Saadeddin Ibrahim, director of the Ibn Khaldoun Centre for Human Rights and the coordinator of the Independent Committee for Elections Monitoring (ICEM).
A heavy security presence did not interfere in last week’s vote but observers reported violent incidents this time as 42 candidates from the popular banned Brotherhood, running as independents, challenged the NDP’s long-standing dominance of parliamentary seats. One woman was reported shot and injured outside a polling station in a working class area in Cairo, while an NDP worker reportedly stabbed a Muslim Brotherhood campaigner. Monitors, opposition and Brotherhood candidate representatives were reportedly intimidated and beaten by paid thugs in the polling districts of Giza, Minya and Beni Sweif. Two vehicles were set on fire from a gunshot blast in Beni Sweif, which recorded the highest incidents of violence. Some polling stations were reportedly closed during the day, then opened after surprise inspections by the Parliamentary Electoral Commission (PEC).
Monitors also said four Brotherhood candidate representatives were arrested a few hours before the Tuesday vote in the Upper Egyptian town of Mellawi. Observers noted a heavy police presence in Cairo’s Boulaq and Al-Omraniya where MP candidates were nominated.
An initial report by the ICEM said, "such disturbing escalation of violence" was mostly instigated by NDP supporters and not the opposition. The report confirmed at least four cases in which NDP supporters initiated assaults on other candidate supporters.
Other irregularities marring the 9 November vote might have actually increased in Tuesday’s poll, including vote-buying, busing voters to polling stations not theirs in order to cast ballots for NDP candidates, and a recurrence of registering voters in constituencies where they do not belong, again to garner more votes for NDP candidates. Voters’ lists remained a major violation as at least 30 per cent of the names on the lists either belonged to those deceased, anonymous people without family names or recognised addresses, or were simply repeated, civil groups said.
Monitors said the government attempted to influence voters by promising them jobs, flats, land and other incentives that candidates outside the NDP cannot provide. Observers said vote-buying was more widespread than ever in almost all polling stations where the price of a vote reportedly ranged from between LE50 and LE500.
"Everybody, including NDP, opposition and independent candidates used money to influence voters and this has undermined the whole democratic experience," Mohamed Zarie, director of the Egyptian Human Rights Association for the Assistance of Prisoners (HRAAP) and the coordinator of the National Campaign for the Monitoring of Elections (NCME), told Al-Ahram Weekly. "People are voting for money, not political reform." The majority, however, were disinclined to participate in a vote they "knew would be marred with a great deal of fraud and violence," according to Zarie.
Voter turnout was as low as 24 per cent in the run-off elections, almost the case of the first round of the parliamentary polls, which, Zarie said, shows "how people put little stock in government promises of democratic reform. They thus do not bother to vote when they know the NDP will win anyway."
Negad El-Boraie, head of the Group for Democratic Development and a member of the NCME, was equally despondent over the "blatant government disrespect for court rulings" which invalidated the results of 10 constituencies in the first round of elections where voter and candidate lists were reportedly rigged. According to the ruling, at least three candidates changed their designation from worker to professional to increase their chances of winning, but the government appealed and no settlement is expected to be reached before the elections end in December.
As was the case in last week’s polls, rights groups said monitors were not allowed into polling stations during vote counting, balloting boxes were swapped, stuffed and submitted to the Parliamentary Electoral Committee hours before the polls closed, some judges in charge of polling stations were reportedly changed shortly before vote counting and initial results were sometimes changed in some constituencies in Cairo.
Rights groups also said the judicial supervision of the vote was far from complete, as promised by the government, not exceeding 15 per cent of all polling centres. Most polling stations, according to Ibrahim, "were under the supervision of government employees with some legal training but who are not judges".
Rights groups say the fraud committed this year was enough to invalidate the results of the first round of parliamentary polls where the NDP won more than 40 per cent of the vote. "The results cannot be anything near true," Abu Seada said. That the NDP would win an overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats was almost a foregone conclusion but both local and international observers said the polls would put to the test Egypt’s repeated pledges for democratic reform.
El-Boraie said indelible phosphoric ink for fingers when voting and allowing local monitoring and transparent ballot boxes were some "positive steps taken on the technical level. But nothing has actually changed on the political side. The situation is as bad as ever".
For Ibrahim the situation may even be "far worse than expected. Expectations were high after the amendment of Article 76 of the constitution, and the government repeated promises for democratic reform."
The fact that the government allowed local civil society to monitor the elections and the international pressure for democratisation similarly "raised hopes for cleaner and fairer polls," Ibrahim added. "But the fraud committed has already cast doubt on the integrity of the polls and reveals that something malicious is going on."
The NDP had a dominant 85 per cent of Egypt’s 444 parliamentary seats but the opposition was hoping to increase its representation now that whoever wins the seats will likely play a role in determining contenders for the presidential elections six years from now. According to a recent constitutional amendment allowing for multi-candidate presidential elections, political parties must have a minimum five per cent of seats in parliament to nominate a candidate for the presidency.
"The ruling party wants to remain in total control and the very idea that it could lose control drives it crazy," Ibrahim said. Which explains why monitors "were always kicked out of polling stations during ballot counts," he added.
"It’s high time the government takes real steps towards reform before we have democracy forced upon us from the outside," El-Boraie contended.