Egypt's new parties slam electoral districts law as tailored for NDP restoration

Gamal Essam El-Din , Thursday 15 Sep 2011

Activists from across Egypt's political spectrum have embarked on a campaign aimed at rejecting a draft law charting new electoral districts

NDP campaign 2010
Are they coming back? Election banner of the defunct NDP in the Cairo district of Zamalek. (File photo)

Most political forces in Egypt have sharply criticised a draft law aimed at establishing a new distribution of electoral districts, agreeing that it would make it difficult for citizens to vote and for candidates to organise election campaigns. The law, jointly drafted by the government and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), complements another parliamentary elections law that left half of the seats in both houses to be decided via a party list system and the other half by individual candidacy.

In a conference held Tuesday by the Islamist Wasat Party, representatives of several political forces led by presidential candidate Amr Moussa announced that they have embarked upon a campaign against the new electoral districts law. The campaign will include collecting signatures from leaders of political movements and ordinary citizens for SCAF to scrap the law or amend it in consultation with activists.

Under the two laws, the number of the deputies of the People’s Assembly is set to stand at a total of 504, plus another 10 to be appointed by the president. This is up from 454 in the last People’s Assembly.

The Assembly’s 504 deputies will be elected from 126 districts covered by the individual candidacy system, and 58 covered by the party list system. The 126 districts will produce 252 deputies — or two per district. The remaining 58 districts will produce another 252, with the number of deputies elected in each district ranging from four to six.

The law charting new electoral districts also makes a distinction between big and small governorates. In a governorate like Cairo, it sets out seven districts to be covered by the party-list system, with four seats per district. This will produce 28 deputies. It also sets out another 14 districts to be covered by individual candidacy, or two seats per district. This will produce another 28 deputies. In total, Cairo will be represented by 56 deputies, up from 50 in previous assemblies. The law, however, makes the size of districts covered by the party list system much bigger than by individual candidacy. In Cairo, for example, three large districts in the north — Shubra, El-Sahel and Road El-Farag — were merged with Zawiya Al-Hamra in the east and will be represented by just four party-based deputies.

By contrast, a small governorate like Aswan will include only two districts to be covered by individual candidacy and represented by four deputies, and another one district to be covered by the party list and represented by four deputies.

As for Shura Council, its members rose from 264 to 390, a third of them presidential appointees. The Council’s deputies will be elected from 93 districts, 65 of which covered by individual candidacy and 28 by the party-list system. The 65 districts will produce 130 deputies — or two per district. The 28 districts, covered by the party list system, will produce another 130 members, with a number ranging from four to six per district.

The redesign of electoral districts has angered most political forces, accusing SCAF of ignoring their demands, on top of which is abolishing individual candidacy altogether. Individual candidacy has been blamed for the proliferation of electoral fraud, vote buying and intimidation under the regime of ousted president Hosni Mubarak. A statement by a Democratic Alliance, including 36 political parties, on top of which the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wafd, argued that maintaining the system would have seen the return to parliament of the officials and corrupt businessmen who dominated the Mubarak regime’s National Democratic Party (NDP).

The new electoral districts law poured oil on the fire, as not only has SCAF ignored calls to abolish the individual candidacy system, but it has also decided to go ahead, announcing a new distribution of electoral districts and timelines of upcoming elections. An informed source announced 3 September that the door for registration in upcoming parliamentary elections will be opened on 27 September, and SCAF officials have announced that elections would most probably be held in November. Mamdouh Shahin, SCAF’s legal adviser, said October would be devoted to campaigning and that elections will be held over three stages.

In reaction, political forces, especially secular ones, cried foul that SCAF chose to impose its blueprint on political life. Essam Shiha, a famous lawyer and a Wafd Party activist, argued that “not only has SCAF kept the individual candidacy system, but its draft of the law made it highly difficult for candidates — especially those belonging to newly-formed parties — to compete in the elections." "It makes the size of districts covered by the party-list system very large, thus making it difficult for candidates of a particular force to compete because they will be forced to extend their campaigns to cover very large areas and in different places with no geographical relationship between them,” argued Shiha, adding that “in North Cairo, for example, the four candidates of each competing party will be forced to campaign in an area including no fewer than five million citizens.”

Shiha also argued that “in a time of security vacuum, it will be highly dangerous to hold the elections of the People’s Assembly and Shura Council on the same day.” “It means that citizens will be exposed to two kinds of election campaigns for the first time on the same day, and they will be expected to elect a large number of deputies for two houses on one day,” said Shiha.

According to the new law, when voters go to the polling stations, they will be faced with two lists of candidates for the People’s Assembly and two for the Shura Council. The first list will include candidates running as individuals and the second those running on a party ticket. Diaa Rashwan, director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said that “the organisation of the elections of the People’s Assembly and Shura Council on the same day will make the voting process very complicated and cumbersome for citizens.”

“As the number of registered voters rose to as high as 50 million people, it will be almost impossible for even a third of this number to vote for two houses of parliament in one day,” said Rashwan. He believes that the design of the new electoral districts helps wealthy businessmen and the diehards of Mubarak’s defunct NDP to return to parliament, as well as  candidates belonging to Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party.

Most liberal and secular forces are against SCAF’s political and electoral roadmap. Nasser Abdel-Hamid, a member of the 25 January Revolution Coalition, said the 16 September rally is mainly aimed at exerting pressure on SCAF to stop imposing amendments of key laws on political life and reinvoking emergency law. “This is the style of the rule of the Mubarak regime and it has to be changed,” said Abdel-Hamid.

Members of the April 6 Youth Movement also voiced criticism of the new law. "This will deprive the youth and new political forces who joined the political scene of campaigning and gaining the confidence of voters," said Mahmoud Afify, spokesman for the April 6 Youth Movement, adding that “by contrast, it gave leverage to remnants of the former regime to use their money and corrupt methods to sweep the elections."

For their part, Islamist forces, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, have refused final comment on the electoral districts law, insisting that “they do not have an official copy of it.” In general, Islamists said they are ready to contest elections in November, and that "there is no reason for another delay.”

Muslim Brotherhood leading member Essam El-Erian said “the group’s Freedom and Justice Party, in coordination with the Democratic Alliance, will announce a unified position on the new electoral districts law.”

Cabinet sources refused to comment on a leaked copy of the law, stating that the draft law is still a matter of discussion between the government and SCAF’s legal experts.

Military council member Mamdouh Shahin announced that SCAF approved holding elections for the People's Assembly and Shura Council on two separate days. "We agree that security forces will not be able to safeguard the elections of the two houses on the same day," said Shahin.

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