Nearly 10 months into the revolution, Egyptians are finally approaching what is set to be their first free and fair parliamentary elections. But with so many competing political factions and agendas, creating an electoral law acceptable to everyone has been a continuous struggle, both at the street level and in the realms of power. The law in its final draft comes after months of debate and amendments and although not to the liking of all seems to provide a comfortable middle ground.
Parliament will be chosen using a mixed electoral system, with one-third of the seats contested by individual candidates and the remaining two-thirds apportioned by party-lists. Compared to Mubarak-era elections, it is a seemingly complex and alien process to the 52 million eligible voters.
Old vs New
Under the old electoral system, parliamentarians were elected via individual candidacy, or to use the more technical term, a two-member district system. The nation’s 26 governorates were divided into 222 constituencies each represented by two elected members of parliament — one seat reserved for a farmer or a worker and the other open to any candidate.
In addition to these 444 seats, a 2010 amendment to the electoral law created 64 new People’s Assembly seats reserved for women, to be filled in a special election held alongside regular elections. The president also appointed an additional 10 seats, making a total of 518 members of the People Assembly.
Under this system, 100 percent of the seats were contested by either an independent candidate or by parties fielding an individual candidate for the particular constituency, known as a ‘single-member system,’ in political science parlance. Candidates secure their votes based more on who they are and what they promise to deliver for their individual constituency, as opposed to what their party represents for the country as a whole.
Samer Soliman, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo and a member of the newly founded Egyptian Social Democratic Party, explains that Egypt’s experience with elections shows that it is very much based on individual effort. “The single-member system puts a lot of strain on the individual candidate,” Soliman says. “He has to personally campaign and convince people to support him.”
In the new electoral system, the parliament will consist of 498 seats, with 166 seats (33.3 percent) filled via the single-member system in 83 constituencies, each represented by two MPs. The remaining 332 seats (66.6 percent) will be contested using party-lists in 46 constituencies, with each list fielding between four to ten candidates depending on the size of the constituency.
Iman Kandil, Al Wasat Party’s assistant secretary general, explains that in a party-list system, a single party or a coalition of parties and/or independent candidates forms a list of candidates that they field in the different constituencies. Each party or coalition fields a seperate list for each constituency.
“Participants in each list campaign under the same platform and offer their voters a unified set of economic and political programs,” says Kandil. The voter casts his or her vote for the entire list instead of an individual candidate.
Soliman explains that the party-list system automatically diminishes the weight of the individual candidate’s character and connections that play into the voting decision. So instead of voting for a particular person, people will have to cast their votes according to the party’s vision and platform for change.
A List of Perks
Since the debate over the future of the country’s electoral process began, political parties have advocated applying the party-list system instead of individual candidacy.
The major advantage is that the list system helps strengthen political parties and develop the political make-up of a country as a whole since it promotes ideas and solutions instead of individual efforts.
“When you vote for a list, the electoral program and policies get center stage,” says Soliman, “as opposed to the single-member system where the individual is the focus.”
In addition, the individual-candidacy system has been rife with by illegal practices. In Mubarak’s Egypt, elections at every level were marred by allegations of vote buying and voter intimidation.
The party-list system goes a long way in limiting such practices. To begin with, instead of having hundreds of small constituencies, voting districts can be consolidated into larger constituencies with more representatives for each district.
Wael Nawara, a member of the Ghad Party, explains that larger constituencies would play a big role in limiting vote buying and a single candidate’s ability to influence the direction of votes. “If you have only 50 constituencies [for example], each could have well over a million people in it, so vote buying becomes too expensive, if not impossible.”
The new electoral law clearly moved in that direction by slashing the number of constituencies from 222 to 129.Another advantage of the list system is that it does not ignore the minority vote. While the individual candidacy is a ‘winner-takes-all’ system, Nawara says that under the list system, there would be no losing party; each list contesting a constituency get seats in proportion to the percentage of votes it receives.
“If a list receives 70 percent of the votes, they will get seven out of the ten seats, and the remaining three seats go to the holder of the 30 percent,” he explains.
The individual candidacy system operates on the concept of ‘first-past-the-post.’ If a candidate received 50 percent plus one vote, then he or she wins the seat. If there is no majority winner, then a second round is held between the two candidates with the highest numbers of votes.
This way, someone is bound to receive 50 percent plus one.
Nawara explains that the old system of a first and second round did not necessarily reflect the will of the majority. “If in a constituency the top two runners have 15 percent and 12 percent of the votes [respectively] and the second round ends with the 15 percent holder winning the seat, then we have effectively ignored the will of 85 percent of the voters [those who did not vote for the winner].”
Perhaps most importantly the list system facilitates the inclusion of multiple parties and the introduction of new blood in the political process.
“The party-lists system opens up the path to new faces and increases the rate of turnover in the parliament from election to election,” says Kandil. “In the past we had people who were [emotionally] attached to being members of parliament after keeping their seats for over 20 years.” In other words, when people base their voting decision on candidates’ programs and performance and not their personal ties, then it is easier to keep introducing new people.
Why the Mix?
Given the benefits , there is a vocal contingent calling for 100 percent of parliament seats to be contested under a party-list system. Among their fears is that former members of the now-defunct NDP will use the individual candidacy elections to regain political power.
Nevertheless, Soliman believes that the current split of one-third for independents and two-thirds for party-lists is feasible. A pure list system is not foolproof. One disadvantage is that MPs do not have the strong connection to their constituents that they would gain from an individual-based campaign.
Another drawback is that the system concentrates power with party leadership as they pick who goes on the list. “One hundred percent by lists means that you are giving unchallenged power to the parties in choosing the members of parliament. As political parties in Egypt still don’t enjoy internal democracies, this opens the door to favoritism and nepotism over qualifications,” explains Soliman.
A list-only system also makes it very difficult for independents to run. Some argue that independents could form their lists, but Soliman explains that this is much more difficult than it sounds. “People who wish to run as political independents have a harder time gaining ground in a party-list system,” he says.
Considering the country’s history of corrupt elections, introducing even a partial party-list system might ensure a more diverse representation in the People’s Assembly even if it means sacrificing close ties between candidates and constituencies. And it is not without precedent.
Nawara notes that almost all of the newly formed democracies apply a party-list system since it helps in building a healthy political environment, which is something that Egypt currently lacks.
It will also help bring fresh blood into the system and give newly formed political parties the opportunity to actually participate in the system and strengthen their position. In short, it will create political institutions that are able to compete effectively.