Islamists and opposition differ on proposed elections law

Gamal Essam El-Din , Thursday 3 Jan 2013

The gap is still wide between Islamists and opposition forces on a new law aimed at regulating upcoming parliamentary elections

Egyptian parliament
The first Egyptian parliament session after the revolution that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak, in Cairo January 23, 2012 (Photo: Reuters)

Minister of Justice Ahmed Mekki will attend a meeting held by the Shura Council’s Legislative Committee on Thursday, 3 January, to discuss a new draft election law.

Mekki’s move comes after Islamist President Mohamed Morsi requested the government review a new draft law aimed at regulating the upcoming elections of the House of Representatives (the former People's Assembly). The law was drafted 1 January by a number of politicians and legislative experts who gathered in a national dialogue meeting  headed by Mahmoud Mekki, Morsi’s vice-president who resigned from office last week. 

Presidential spokesman Yasser Ali said Tuesday that the new draft parliamentary election law was adopted by the sixth session of the national dialogue, after which it was referred to the government for review before it being sent to the Shura Council for final discussion and approval .

Ali explained that the new election law — a change to the 1972 Law No 38 regulating the People’s Assembly — includes five basic amendments. The first amendment, he said, is in line Article 231 of the new constitution that states that the upcoming parliamentary polls are to be held under a mixed elections system. The article goes on to state that “two thirds of seats of the House of Representatives will be elected under the party-based list system, while the remaining third will be governed by the individual candidacy system." The article also gives party-based members the right to compete for a third of the seats reserved for independents.

The second amendment, according to Ali, is that the number of seats of the upcoming House of Representatives will stand at 498 — the same number as 2012’s outgoing People’s Assembly. The third amendment, Ali added, states that the party-based lists include one female candidate at least, and that she must be on the first half of the list. The fourth amendment, Ali said, allows that lists of candidates include a mix of independents and party-based officials and that the lists are closed (or with a fixed number of candidates) and not open-ended.

Ali indicated that the fifth amendment, submitted by Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), states that judges take charge of counting votes and announcing the results in auxiliary polling stations (rather than taking votes to main polling stations to be counted there), and that representatives of candidates take a copy of the official result, as was the case with last summer’s presidential elections.

Ali said the five amendments will be referred to the government for final review.

Ali’s statement comes despite the fact that the amendments have failed to garner the support of opposition forces, especially the secular National Salvation Front (NSF) headed by liberal political figure and former UN diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei. The NSF boycotted the dialogue and said that it does not intend to attend a session scheduled for 9 January.

Abdel-Ghaffar Shukr, a leftist political activist and the NSF’s official concerned with legislation, said that the five amendments are tailored to help political Islamic forces gain a majority in the upcoming House of Representatives, Egypt’s lower house of parliament. According to Shukr, the new draft amendments are "cosmetic." “The mixed election system (with two thirds of seats allocated to party-based candidates and one third for independents) is the one favoured by the Muslim Brotherhood because it helps it field as many candidates as possible,” he said.

Aside from the mixed election system, Shukr said in a press statement that “the NSF is not sure if its demands about the new election law were met by the draft law or not.” Shukr had earlier said that the NSF had proposed 94 amendments to the 1956 political rights law. Among these is that the Judicial Electoral Commission, entrusted by the new constitution with monitoring parliamentary elections, must adopt internationally-recognised standards for ensuring the integrity of elections.

“One of these is that judges in charge of this commission must not be members of any authorities affiliated with the government in any way to ensure that they are impartial and unbiased,” said Shukr, also indicating, “that the commission must embark upon updating voter lists, redrawing  electoral districts, and excluding any executive authorities from having a hand in supervising the election.”

Shukr said the NSF insists that a special police force be formed and put at the disposal of the Judicial Electoral Commission to safeguard judges from attacks and prevent rigging practices. Shukr also indicated that the NSF asked that a ceiling of financial spending be imposed on election campaigns. “This is necessary, because political Islamic forces enjoy high levels of funding, with some of it coming from the oil-rich Arab Gulf countries,” said Shukr.

The NSF also proposed that penalties imposed on election fraud be stiffened and that human rights organisations have the right of filing lawsuits against officials accused of involvement in rigging practices. The NSF said the party-based lists of candidates must include one or two women at least. Shukr indicated that the amendments must also stress that religious slogans are strictly banned and that places of worship must not be used in any way for electioneering. “Candidates found guilty of these practices must be excluded from the parliamentary race and each fined LE50,000,” said the NSF.

Other NSF activists, such as Gamal Zahran, a former independent MP and a political science professor, said although the mixed election system was ruled unconstitutional by the High Constitutional Court in June, Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood insisted on making it a part of the new constitution because it serves their interests. “Let us remember that the High Constitututional Court said independents form a majority in Egypt and that it is discriminatory to draft a law reserving just one third of seats to them in parliament,” said Zahran, adding that “the court also stated that reserving two thirds of seats to party-based candidates and allowing political parties to compete for the one third of seats reserved for independents does not ensure in any way that most political forces are well represented in parliament.”

Zahran argued that the Muslim Brotherhood insisted on keeping the unbalanced mixed electoral system in place because it gives it a good chance to field as many candidates as possible, either in the form of independents or party-based ones, and hence a good chance to dominate the next parliament. Zahran added that the Brotherhood tailored the constitution to prevent members of former president Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) from competing against them. “These two developments — the unbalanced mixed election system and lack of competition from NDP officials with strong tribal and familial connections — gives a big edge for the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies to sweep next parliament,” said Zahran.

He added: “if the Muslim Brotherhood and other Salafists were able to get around 70 per cent of seats in last year’s parliamentary election with the presence of NDP candidates, they would be able to get no less than 80 per cent in the next parliament after they had tailored the constitution and election laws to serve their ends.”

Commenting on the FJP's demand that counting be held in auxillary polling stations, Zahran explained: “Although civilian forces do not object to this demand, the fact remains that secular opposition political parties do not have representatives enough to send to attend the vote-counting process.” Rather, “It is Muslim Brotherhood that has thousands of representatives everywhere in Egypt and are able to attend the vote-counting process in auxiliary polling stations, whose total number exceeds 25,000,” said Zahran, indicating that “in last summer’s presidential election, they were able to take copies of the official result statement in each auxiliary polling stations and declare very early that Mohamed Morsi won the election.”

Mohamed Mohieddin, a newly-appointed member of the Shura Council and the secular Ghad El-Thawra (the Revolution’s Tomorrow) Party led by political figure Ayman Nour, said “not all the demands requested by NSF were met by the national dialogue.” He explained that the NSF’s request that there be redrawing of electoral districts was ignored on the grounds that it would require too much time. Shukr said: “The current electoral districts are very big in space and cannot be covered by candidates lacking adequate financial sources.”

In reaction to the NSF’s objections, FJP members of the Shura Council underlined that they want that the new election law "gains consensus from all political forces before it is finally passed by the council.” Chairman of the Shura Council and FJP member Ahmed Fahmi said that “the reservations of civil forces about the draft election law will be taken into account when they come for discussion before the council.”

Mohamed Touson, chairman of the Shura Council's Legislative Affairs Committee and a FJP member, said: “We will review the demands tendered by the opposition and will see how much they can be accomplished.” Touson disclosed that Minister of Justice Mekki objected that “representatives of candidates take copies of the official result of vote-counting in auxiliary polling stations.” Touson cited Mekki as saying that "This is quite impossible because this is different from the presidential elections.” In parliamentary elections, Mekki explained, "there are hundreds of candidates and thousands of auxiliary polling stations, making it impossible for representatives of all these candidates to attend the vote-counting process and take an official copy of the result.”

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