More questions than answers about Egypt’s electoral law

7 Min Read

By David Faris

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the scorching streets beginning July 8, seeking justice for those killed and injured during the revolution and long-overdue reforms of the Ministry of Interior, among other things. Their steadfastness has already forced Essam Sharif’s government to announce some concessions, and more may be coming.

Yet even with the delay announced yesterday, the upcoming legislative elections are getting closer by the day, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ draft electoral law, while certainly an improvement over the system used under Mubarak, leaves many key question unanswered.

While sifting through the implications of electoral laws is anything but sexy, the contours of Egypt’s electoral system are likely to structure competition in ways that are both lasting and important. The parties that are able to master the particularities of this system may emerge victorious in October or November, and thus gain substantial power in drafting a new constitution. Yet the SCAF’s process so far ensures that no one knows the rules or has time to organize, and will lead inevitably to electoral chaos if steps are not taken immediately.

The latest plan by the electoral commission has half of the parliament elected via party list (by which parties create lists of candidates who are awarded seats equivalent to the percentage of voters who choose their party), and half elected under the old system of district-level contests. What the SCAF has announced is, in political science terminology, a parallel system, one in which the two components of the legislative election operate separately.

The district level elections — which directly elect individual candidates to represent particular localities — have no effect on the party list elections. This is how countries like Japan and Russia conduct elections, whereas Germany uses a scheme called mixed-member proportional, by which the party list elections are used to adjust for unequal results in the district-level elections. The latter certainly has more supporters among those who study electoral systems.

In any case it would certainly be helpful if the SCAF could explain its decision-making process and why it believes a parallel system is in the best interests of the country. Judging from recent appearances by members of the military, however, the SCAF is generally uninterested in making sense or justifying its decision-making processes.

The draft electoral law also sets the threshold for parliamentary representation at two percent, one of the lowest in the world and identical to Israel’s, which has tended to produce difficulties in forming governing coalitions. Thresholds create the baseline for viable parties, and setting it so low ensures that a number of very small parties may be represented in what is sure to be a fractionalized parliament. It is unclear why anyone would want to create this kind of system on purpose.

But even what the SCAF has elaborated upon leaves too many questions unanswered. For instance, will the system permit dual candidacies? Under a system of dual candidacy, such as that employed in Germany, candidates may be placed simultaneously on the party list and district-level ballots. For instance, parties may place their best candidates high on a party list just in case they lose the district election. Observers are split about the utility of dual candidacies, but either way Egyptians need to know the rules.

The next question concerns how party lists are to be generated in the first place. List proportional representation systems come in many varieties, from those in which parties have complete control over the ordering of the lists (“closed list”), to systems known as “open list,” in which voters are able to affect the placement of candidates.

Observers generally believe that closed-list systems make parties unresponsive to the concerns of voters, and give parties too much control over nominating procedures. Egypt would be wise to adopt a system that combines elements of voter control with party centralization.

A matter of even greater urgency is that the existing districts are woefully unequal, with rural districts having far fewer persons per representative than their urban counterparts. This malapportionment was a rather transparent plot to increase the power of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. While districts are allegedly being reorganized, it is of course not immediately apparent who is responsible for the redistricting or under what principles it will be conducted. How are parties and candidates supposed to gear up for election campaigns in districts that have yet to be drawn?

Finally, it is unclear how women will be represented under the new law. Instead of the 64-seat quota used for the November 2010 elections — which despite the brazen vote-rigging made Egypt a regional leader in gender representation — parties will now be forced to include at least one woman on their lists.

The electoral commission claimed, rather bizarrely, that this scheme results in women holding 29 percent of the seats in parliament. Like all things SCAF, this calculation is both utterly opaque and almost transparently nonsensical. If 10 parties win representation, this could mean as few as 10 women in parliament. The law also appears to contain no provisions for increasing Coptic Christian representation, which was woefully inadequate in recent elections.

With the Ramadan slowdown in the offing, there is no more time for Egypt’s leaders to waste. Keeping voters, parties, and observers in the dark about election procedures will de-legitimize what should be Egypt’s first truly democratic legislative elections. Failure to immediately and transparently outline the electoral rules may only result in what appears to be the SCAF’s worst nightmare: delaying the elections yet again and having to continue governing the country.

David Faris is an American political commentator and holds a Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania for which he did extensive research in Cairo. He teaches at Roosevelt University in Chicago.




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