Low voter turnout predicted for Egypt's looming presidential runoff

Yasmine Wali, Sunday 10 Jun 2012

Upcoming Morsi-Shafiq presidential showdown will likely be dogged by low voter turnout, experts say; government grants state employees two day holiday and reduces travel costs in a bid to bolster numbers

Egypt Presidential Elections
Egyptians vote in the first free presidential election since former President Hosni Mubarak’s ousting last spring. (Photo: AP)

With only 46 per cent of registered voters having cast ballots in the first round of Egypt's ongoing presidential poll, it remains unclear how many will vote in next week's presidential runoff. Some experts believe that voter turnout for the presidential showdown – slated for 16/17 June – will be even lower than it was for the first-round vote.

Turnout for parliamentary polls late last year stood at 54 per cent – lower than expected for Egypt's first post-Mubarak legislative election. Turnout for the first round of Egypt's hotly-contested presidential election late last month, meanwhile, was considerably lower at 46 per cent.

"Turnout rates in Egypt have generally been low compared to post-revolution elections in other countries," Hazem Mounir, political analyst and member of Egypt's National Council for Human Rights, told Ahram Online.

Experts, however, note that voter turnout rates for presidential elections are traditionally lower than those for their parliamentary equivalents. The disparity, they say, is due mainly to the fact that most Egyptian voters see the presidency as far removed from their daily concerns, whereas the performance of their respective representatives in parliament can actually affect their everyday lives.

"Egyptian voters don't relate to presidential candidates like they do to their parliamentary representatives," said Mounir. "In parliamentary polls, people often vote for friends – perhaps even relatives – or cast ballots based on tribal affiliations."  

"Unlike presidential candidates, parliamentary candidates promise to deal with their constituents' immediate problems, like providing them with jobs or essential services," Mounir added. "These are immediate benefits that voters can relate to, unlike presidential elections in which the issues addressed have less of an impact on voters' everyday lives."

A tough choice for some

Said Sadek, a political sociology professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC), predicted a low turnout in this month's runoff, mainly due to dissatisfaction among wide swathes of the voting public with the two presidential finalists.

Last month's first-round vote yielded unanticipated results, with Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi coming in first with 25 per cent of the vote, and Mubarak-era premier Ahmed Shafiq coming in a very close second with 24 per cent.

According to Sadek, many Egyptian voters feel caught between fears of an Islamic state under the Muslim Brotherhood and a reconstituted Mubarak regime under Shafiq.

"Much of the voting public is unhappy about having to choose between the Brotherhood – about which they have reservations due to the groups' stance on certain civil liberties issues – and a figure closely associated with the deposed Mubarak regime," Sadek said. "They see the choice as one between a religious state and a military regime."

"If the Brotherhood's Morsi becomes the next president, what guarantees do we have that Egypt won't become an Iran-style theocracy?" he went on to ask. "And similar worries are posed by Shafiq, who many fear may crack down on Egypt's nascent revolutionary movements and, like his predecessor, crush political dissent."  

"In light of this difficult choice, we may see a large number of spoiled ballots in the coming runoff," Sadek added. "Meanwhile, incidents of elections-related violence – which can't be ruled out given the contentiousness of the upcoming poll – might also contribute to lower turnout."

Sadek went on to say, however, that high levels of support for Shafiq among women and Egypt's Coptic-Christian community could end up having the opposite effect and boost voter turnout in the upcoming runoff. "Most Copts and many women will likely turn out in force to support Shafiq out of fear of the Brotherhood," he said. 

Electoral, constitutional confusion

A lack of experience in democratic electoral politics on the part of the Egyptian public is also likely to adversely impact voter turnout, say experts.

"Since last year's revolution, Egyptians have had to deal with unprecedented political developments and a battery of free elections," said Sadek. "It's easy to forget that this is their first experience with genuine democracy."

Yusri El-Azabawy, political analyst at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, says that this inexperience – coupled with the very short period parties and candidates had to explain their respective electoral programmes – has led to considerable confusion.

"Much of the public still doesn't understand why they're voting in the first place, or see the benefits of casting ballots for this or that candidate," she told Ahram Online.

Experts further note that a months-long constitutional crisis, which has left the incoming president's powers largely undefined, may also take a toll on voter turnout in next week's runoff.

"In the absence of a constitution, people still don't know the extent of the president's authority," Sadek said. "Why would they feel moved to vote for a president whose powers remain unclear?"

In April, non-Islamist figures withdrew en masse from a constituent assembly – tasked with drafting a new constitution – to object to the high proportion of Islamist-leaning assembly members. Since then, the constitution-drafting process has remained in legal limbo.

"We were wrong when we chose to hold presidential elections before having drafted a new constitution," said Um Fatma, a 40-year-old housewife from Cairo. "We didn't realise the problems this would cause down the road; we only wanted a degree of stability."

Socio-political distractions & other factors

Voters, say experts, are also deeply distracted by Egypt's longstanding economic woes – along with a handful of new ones that have cropped up since the revolution. These include fluctuating commodity prices, serious fuel shortages and an ongoing security vacuum.

"Egyptians have been extremely discouraged by the political and economic instability that has come in the wake of the revolution," said Mohamed Ahmed, 25, who works in a Kodak studio in Cairo. "Many people have become apathetic and don't plan to vote, thinking, 'What can any one man do to solve all these problems?'"

According to Sadek, it's difficult for would-be voters to focus on electoral politics "when they're already stressed out from dealing with all these serious economic and security-related problems."

Analysts also point to a handful of other factors likely to impact voter turnout in next week's runoff.

For one, there have been a host of calls to boycott the vote since results were announced. Eliminated Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, for one, who came in the third place after Shafiq, has called his considerable support base to boycott the runoff. 

It is also worth mentioning that many working-class voters in Cairo and Alexandria were unable to travel – due to financial constraints – to their respective hometowns to cast ballots.

"I didn't have strong feelings about which presidential candidate to support, so I didn’t bother travelling all the way to my hometown in Minya to vote," said Cairo doorman Mohamed Ahmed.

What's more, Sadek pointed out that late May is the harvest season for most Egyptian farmers, impeding their ability to vote. This no doubt contributed to low turnout rates in the last two elections in rural areas compared those in the country's urban areas.

In a bid to bolster numbers at the ballot boxes, Egypt's current Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri in a press statement at the end of last week announced that all state employees will be given two days holiday over the two day runoffs.

In addition, Ganzouri stated that ticket prices for transportation between Cairo and other governorates and bus journeys in the capital would be reduced by 50 per cent on the election days.  

There was also a promising turnout of Egyptian expat voters as the polling stations abroad closed on the 7 June.

At the end of the day, however, voter turnout in next week's historic presidential runoff is impossible to predict with any certainty. "A low voter turnout is likely," AUC social psychology professor Sherine Ramzy told Ahram Online. "But it's not 100 per cent guaranteed."

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