Low voter turnout in Egypt elections

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The Independent Online

After accusations of vote rigging and violence marred Egypt’s parliamentary elections last week, yesterday’s second round fared no better. Low voter turnout and scattered armed skirmished were reported by domestic monitoring groups across the country as beleaguered Egyptians headed to the polls for run-off contests.

Yet after the country’s two main opposition groups called foul, after President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party swept over 90 percent of the seats in the first round, and refused to participate, the outcome of yesterday’s elections may be even more farcical.

The withdrawal of the main opposition left the regime’s National Democratic Party (NDP) candidates alone at the races. But they were in good company, since the NDP decided to field multiple candidates in almost 60 percent of constituencies, according to state-media. Yesterday 363 NDP candidates competed in 283 districts across the country.

“Almost all the polls are NDP versus NDP,” said Magdy Abdel Hamid, chairman of the Egyptian Association for Community Participation and Enhancement that organised a local coalition to monitor the elections. “After most of the opposition groups abstained, you feel like there is no elections.”

The Egyptian Platform for Non-Partisan Parliamentarian and Presidential Electoral Observation noticed an upsurge of violence in this round from domestic observers stationed around the country as NDP candidates clamoured to join the country’s notorious patronage machine by enlisting votes through money and intimidation. Egyptian members of parliament enjoy immunity and access to state resources.

The official banned Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition group that contests elections as independents, held 88 seats – a 20 percent bloc – in the outgoing parliament. The group secured no seats outright in the Nov. 28 first round and was supposed to square off against the NDP in 27 districts in the run off.

“Because of the rigging of the first round, there’s no way to convince the regime to have a free and fair election except to boycott the run-off,” Brotherhood spokesman Dr. Essam El Erian told the Independent. “If Wafd and we don’t participate, there will be a crisis.”

Egypt’s second largest opposition, the secular-liberal Wafd Party, also pulled out of the run-off after winning only two seats in the first round. The party warned its six candidates slated to run in yesterday’s round they would be dropped from the party if they participated.

The regime’s heavy-handed tactics in both rounds are likely a test-run for next year’s presidential elections. President Mubarak has governed Egypt for almost three decades without nominating a successor. Despite persistent rumours that Mubarak is paving the way for his son Gamal to succeed him, the octogenarian has yet to declare whether he will run for another term in September 2011.

“It’s not just about parliament. They want a tamer political atmosphere. And I think from average Egyptians to people involved in politics the conclusion is going to be ok, the regime is serious, they’re not going to want any messing about,” said Issandr El Amrani, a prominent blogger and political analyst. "Part of the message they are sending is hopelessness, there is no hope, don't think they are going to give you more room."

And it appears Egyptians on the streets are heeding the message. “If you vote for the NDP or not, they still win,” said Mohammed Mazid, a clothing salesman in downtown Cairo. Mazid voted for a Brotherhood candidate last week, not because he supports the Islamist group, but to “spite the NDP.” It didn’t work.

In Shubra, an impoverished Cairo neighborhood where a Wafd candidate remained in the race against an NDP candidate, residents and domestic groups reported vote-buying and scattered violence. “I noticed a lot of forgery today, so I didn’t vote,” said Mohammed Abdel Gawad, a barbershop owner sitting at an outdoor coffee shop. “Anyway, all the votes inside are fake.” Local residents said candidate supporters were distributing between 20 – 200 Egyptian pounds per vote.

But unlike the ordinary citizens refraining from politics, a small group of Egyptian activists in downtown Cairo continue to agitate for change. The group spent almost an hour trying to decide where best to protest the parliamentary election results. When they finally did, squadrons of riot police quickly disbanded the group.

The protestors regrouped on the steps of the Journalism Union where they chanted anti-government slogans, as police hastily barricaded them in. “After this election, I know my voice can’t be represented by elections,” said Islam Abdel Fadel, one of the activists. “There is another way to change the results, and that’s by demonstrating.”