Warming up exercises

Warming up exercises

The countdown to the legislative elections scheduled for November has started, with the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and the opposition, both secular and Islamist, already in rehearsal for the day when close to 30 million eligible voters cast their ballots to select their representatives in the country’s new parliament.

The new parliament will be responsible for any laws or constitutional amendments adopted ahead of the autumn 2011 presidential elections. It will have a greater number of seats, increased from the current 454 to 518 in order to allow for more women MPs, and any individual wanting to run against the NDP candidate in next year’s presidential elections will need to gain the support of 64 members.

The stakes are thus particularly high, and the ruling NDP is working hard to make sure that it obtains “a landslide victory” in this year’s parliamentary elections, in the words of one senior party member. According to statements made by NDP Secretary-General Safwat El-Sherif, the party’s candidates for the parliamentary elections will be announced at the party’s general conference planned for the middle of next month.

According to election insiders, the NDP is hoping that opposition parties will only gain a few seats in this year’s parliamentary elections, with the politically active, but legally banned, Muslim Brotherhood being its main competitors.

In the elections for the previous 2005 parliament, the Brotherhood won 88 seats, and NDP sources speaking off the record hope that in this year’s elections the secular opposition parties score close to 40 seats, with the Muslim Brotherhood not rising above the 20-seat mark. “Political bargains” and “political leverage” could be used to achieve these results, along with the nomination of prominent and popular candidates on behalf of the ruling party, NDP sources say.

It is particularly important that the parliament elected this November pass any laws the ruling party presents in support of its candidate in next year’s presidential elections. The NDP would also welcome a parliament that did not contain enough MPs to provide the level of support constitutionally required for any opposition candidate wanting to run against the NDP candidate for president.

The present condition of political anxiety was not present in NDP circles before the 2005 elections, when the party was running in legislative elections ahead of the country’s first ever multi-party presidential elections. However, in 2005, senior NDP members say, there was no doubt in anybody’s mind that the party’s candidate, President Mubarak, who has been in office since 1981, would run and win.

“In 2005, it was a done deal. However, this year we are still waiting to find out who the NDP’s candidate in the presidential elections will be. Despite statements coming out of the party that suggest that president Mubarak himself will be running, there is in fact some trepidation,” a NDP source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

While Egyptian and foreign sources no longer question whether president Mubarak’s state of health will allow him to run for another term as the country’s president, it is still not clear whether that will be the case in autumn 2011 when the elections take place.

Leading NDP politician Aliedine Helal said this week that Mubarak was the NDP’s candidate for the presidential elections, even as various other groups within the ruling party have been promoting Gamal Mubarak, younger son of the president and popular with younger members of the NDP, as the party’s candidate in 2011.

While sources close to Gamal Mubarak have consistently said that the politically ambitious son of the president is not himself behind the campaign to have him designated the party’s candidate in the 2011 elections, they have not said that he is against it either, or that he has asked for it to be stopped.

According to sources in movements designed to block Gamal Mubarak’s designation as NDP candidate in next year’s presidential elections, his campaign, unofficial though it might be, has achieved a high level of tolerance from the security services, contrasting with the high level of intolerance, bordering on harassment, directed towards those who oppose it.

However, both sources in the ruling party and sources in the opposition agree that the NDP is unable to decide at the moment what its next steps will be.

While those in the NDP who want Gamal Mubarak to run for president in next year’s election argue that president Mubarak should be investing his time and energy in securing a smooth transition of power, those who want Mubarak senior to run again fear that by allowing any other NDP figure to run, the party will be opening the door to larger challenges, including those coming from the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Even those who disagree with president Mubarak know that he has an honourable record [in the Egyptian military], and that he has a huge constituency behind him. Nobody else in the party enjoys equal credibility,” said one party member who belongs to the camp lobbying for the president to stand for another term.

However, if the NDP is unsure of its strategy in the upcoming elections, the opposition is not in a much better condition.

There are major divisions within the opposition, including in the ranks of the leading opposition parties, on next moves in both the legislative and presidential elections. Sources from within the liberal Wafd Party have spoken of “serious disagreements within the top echelons” of the party regarding whether or not it should “coordinate with the NDP” on constituencies where its strongest candidates would run.

Despite denials from party leader Sayed El-Badawie on any deals between the Wafd and the ruling NDP, Wafd insiders have indicated otherwise, saying that there are some within the party who support coordination on the basis of political pragmatism.

The generally more united Muslim Brotherhood is also debating its strategy for the upcoming elections, according to sources within the outlawed group. Some Brotherhood insiders say that it is obvious that the NDP will not allow a large number of Brotherhood MPs to be elected in the next parliament, and so the movement should not waste its energies fighting the elections.

“We would be better off saving our energy and political strength for the more dramatic moment of the presidential elections, in which we can contribute our influence from outside parliament as it is obvious that there is no way we will be able to do so from within,” one Brotherhood source said.

In general, it is still unclear how much influence the opposition will have in the presidential elections.

Divided over who should run, with some lobbying in support of Mohamed Elbaradei, a prominent figure with international status, and others saying that Elbaradei has not matched his words with a commitment to work for change, the opposition is still fragmented, and it is far from sure that it will be able to engineer the constitutional amendments necessary to remove the restrictions making it difficult for non-party candidates to run.

Many political gatherings will be taking place during the month of Ramadan, with most of the country’s political movements holding at least one iftar banquet designed to rally support for their platforms.

Once Ramadan and the various banquets come to an end, the political race will be in full swing. However, it is not yet clear, even to the country’s best- informed analysts, where this particular race is heading.