Electoral System Changes in Egypt Spark Dialogue on Post-Revolution Future
By Moeed Sufi, IFES Program Associate and Eric Hodachok, IFES Senior Program Manager
On June 5, just a few days prior to the swearing in of the new President-elect, former interim President Adly Mansour ratified Egypt’s new parliamentary elections law, significantly altering the voting system established in 2011. In the former mixed system, two-thirds of representatives were elected through lists on the basis of proportional representation and one-third as individual candidates using the majoritarian system. The new law establishes what can be described as a dual-majoritarian system where 74 percent of representatives will be elected through the majoritarian system, 21 percent elected from closed, winner-take-all party lists, and 5 percent appointed by the president.
Additionally, the new law creates quotas – applicable only to the upcoming 2014 parliamentary elections – for the closed lists. It mandates that lists running for the two electoral districts having 15 seats each should include at least three Coptic candidates, seven female candidates, two farmers and/or laborers, two youth candidates, one candidate with a disability, and one expatriate. For the two larger districts comprised of 45 seats each, the quotas increase to nine Coptic candidates, 21 female candidates, six farmers and/or laborers, six youth candidates, three candidates with disabilities, and three expatriates. A closed list or individual candidate wins if more than 50 percent of valid votes are cast in that individual or list's favor – hence the description ‘dual majoritarian’.
Although the final redrawing of electoral districts for the majoritarian ‘individual’ system, with the concomitant number of seats per population size and geography, is yet to be determined, the size of the four constituencies allocated for the closed lists is believed to be too large to foster links between the candidate/party and the constituency. Moreover, the current system is thought to weaken the development of political parties by continuing to rely on traditional alliances and wealthy individuals. This implies a possibility of the election of old-guard leaders reluctant to check executive power, which could result in a pliant legislature. The new electoral system has alienated some political parties, at least in their public discourse, for what is perceived to be the backing of a system that – in Egypt – has historically reinforced networks of political patronage and restricted access to political participation by favoring wealthy and politically connected candidates at the expense of lesser-known individual candidates and parties. Supporters of the law, however, argue that voters prefer to elect known candidates, and are more familiar with a focus on individual candidates, which harkens back to the electoral system utilized under former President Hosni Mubarak. The new measures, coupled with the formal banning of the Freedom and Justice Party, effectively rule out the Muslim Brotherhood from parliamentary representation.
Despite widespread criticism, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has continued the crackdown on dissent initiated by the interim government preceding him, and has publicly questioned the pace at which Egypt can become a fully-fledged democracy. After two popular movements that resulted in the ouster of two Presidents only two years apart from each other, large segments of al-Sisi supporters appear to back the new President’s goal of fostering stability by dulling formal political contestation, as evidenced by their support of actions often criticized by the international community as inhibiting democratic discourse.
While political parties continue to appeal to President al-Sisi to reconsider the newly established electoral system, the extent to which Egypt’s political divisions over fundamental questions – such as political freedoms, the role of religion in statecraft, and even the legitimacy of the recent elections – will dissipate before or after parliamentary elections remains unclear. Though President al-Sisi won the vast majority of the vote in the May 2014 presidential election, declining rates of voter participation raise questions on whether the successive transitional administrations have irrevocably alienated huge constituencies of the voting public, including the youth and liberals. Furthermore, although al-Sisi’s long-term outlook on Egypt’s democracy goals appear to enjoy the support of his backers, with the current polarization of Egyptian society, an arguably exclusionist electoral system risks prolonging Egypt’s political instability. At the time of this writing the parliamentary elections are still unscheduled and the political situation is in flux with efforts at creating party alliances being undone. It is still possible, given the current political fluidity, to amend the electoral system for a more inclusive legislature.