Elliott Abrams

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Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Egypt’s Election Law: Too Complicated for a New Democracy

by Elliott Abrams
November 6, 2011

Egyptians are to begin voting late this month, and it is important that in this first free election the population knows what it is voting for.

But it’s unlikely they will have much of an idea in the ridiculously complex system that has now been designed. It would confuse a bunch of PhD statisticians, much less an electorate that is about 30 percent illiterate.

In the last few elections, Egypt was divided into 444 (or, in 2010, 508) electoral districts in each of which two members were elected. But now there will be a mixed system: one-third of the seats chosen in districts and two-thirds of the seats chosen by proportional representation in accordance with the votes parties get in each district. Moreover, the country has been divided into 83 districts for the individual candidate voting, and into 46 entirely different districts for the proportional representation voting. And an added complication is the requirement that some seats be reserved for “workers” and “farmers,” and others for women. As the superb NGO called IFES, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, explains:

A minimum of 50 percent (249) of all PA [People’s Assembly] members must fulfill the worker/farmer quota. On the PR [proportional representation] lists, workers/farmers do not need to top the list, but non-worker/farmer candidates cannot be placed consecutively on a list. IC [Individual candidate] seats from each district must include at least one worker/farmer.

Got that?

Then there is voting for the upper house of parliament, the Shura Council. IFES explains:

Within the Shura Council, the 270 seats were divided into 180 seats that will be contested through elections and 90 seats that will be appointed. Of the 180 contested seats, two-thirds (120 seats) will be elected through the PR system and one-third (60) will be elected through the IC system. Districts for the Shura Council elections include 30 PR districts and 30 IC districts….

All clear now?

How exactly will proportional representation work? Good question. IFES summarizes: “One of the most important issues of election design is the mathematical method of seat allocation to parties in PR districts. Unfortunately, this issue remains unclear in the PA and Shura Council election laws.”

Perhaps there is a method to this madness. As IFES notes, “Within the pool of 332 PA PR seats and 120 Shura Council PR seats, one would expect the new fragmented political reality of Egypt to facilitate seat bonuses for stronger, more experienced political movements.” That helps the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and power brokers from the old regime, whose National Democratic Party (NDP) was organized throughout the land. It suggests that, like president Mubarak, the military continues to seek a situation wherein the NDP and the MB deal with each other and exclude from power both more extreme Muslim parties and all moderate, centrist, reformist parties.

There will be no national election day. Instead, as IFES reports:

Upcoming parliamentary elections will be staggered over three stages throughout Egypt, lasting for a period of approximately three and half months. In late September, the SCAF announced that the first stage of PA elections will be held on 28 November 2011 and will include…nine governorates…. The second stage of PA elections will be held on 14 December 2011 in…nine governorates….The third and final stage of PA elections will be held on 3 January 2012 in…nine governorates….Run-off elections for PA elections will be held on 5 December, 21 December and 10 January, respectively. The three stages of the Shura Council elections are expected to take place in the same governorates as PA elections. The first stage of Shura Council elections is expected on 29 January 2012; the second stage is expected to take place on 14 February 2012; and the third stage is expected to take place on 4 March 2012.Run-off elections for the Shura Council will be held on 5 February, 21 February and 11 March, respectively.

It seems likely that voter attention and participation will wane as time passes, with the same effect as noted above: to help those who are best organized and to hurt new parties.

This is a very poor system for a fledgling democracy. IFES summed it all up correctly:

Voters and election administrators will be challenged by the new system. For both the PA and Shura Council elections, voters will be faced with at least three votes on two ballot papers. They will also split their votes between party candidates at the local, district and the national level. Due to the design of the electoral system, it is likely that many races will go to a second round run-off. In that case, there is the possibility that voter turnout may atrophy as elections go on. Some voters may be put off by the difficulty of electing female and minority candidates. There could be confusion about when exactly to vote, given the long period over which parliamentary elections will be implemented and the various phases during which voters will have the opportunity to vote in several different elections.

Democracy in Egypt faces huge challenges, not least the lack of experience with freedom and free elections, a collapsing economy, a predatory military, the power and organization of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the weakness of reformist groups. It is criminal to add to those burdens an electoral system entirely unsuited to the country’s situation and certain to produce voter confusion and apathy.

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