Last week, I closely followed, in a combination of shock, sarcasm and cynicism, the parliamentary elections participation rate frenzy. The low rates of participation were neither shocking nor surprising, but the amount of justification and propaganda that surrounded those rates was frightful. The fact that mass media, whether private or state owned, became a platform for mobilisation was quite sad and the rationale used by the media and the political experts and analysts it hosted to justify these low rates was bizarre to say the least.
All sorts of justifications were offered, ranging from how scared Egyptian voters are from the effect of that parliament on the president, the poor moral background of those who decided not to vote, and all the way up to labelling those who did not participate as a burden on this society. Then a threatening discourse started to emerge, from applying an EGP 500 fine on those who do not vote to direct warnings about how those who did not participate should not ask for any rights or expect anything from the state. This past week was a fine example of how vulgar, biased and unprofessional the media in Egypt has become.
The participation rate itself kept fluctuating throughout the week. On the first day of the election, there were statements made that the rate did not exceed 2%, then it went up to 6%, then on the second day there was talk about the rate reaching 15%. Later on that day, a poll concluded that the rate was 35%. Finally, the official participation rate settled at 26.5%. Although most analysts, experts, researchers and politicians are debating and speculating about the significance of that rate, the proper question is actually whether this rate matters.
The problem with this election and the parliament that is supposed to be formed as a result is not with the participation rate, regardless of high or low it is. The problem is actually in every single aspect of the political process in general, and the electoral process in particular. These issues will not be resolved with a high participation rate. Perhaps it makes more sense to ask: what if we all voted?
What if this election recorded an unprecedented participation rate? What if 75% or 80% of eligible voters actually participated in this election? What if voting required a 45-minute wait in a long line due to the millions flooding into polling stations? Would that rate change the fact that a sound majority of the candidates running belonged to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party? Would it change the fact that the parties running are obscure to the Egyptian public and devoid of any political content or strategy? Would it change the fact that electoral campaigning depended on financial capabilities rather than actual visions or tangible resolutions? Would a high participation rate change the fact that this election is a selective process of elite reconfiguration, rather than a proceeding of representative democracy? Can a high participation rate loosen the boundaries on non-violent collective action, empower civil society organisations or promote the creation of a civic culture? How can a high participation rate make up for the lack of democracy prerequisites and its essential underpinnings? Even if we all voted, this election will remain as far from representative democracy as it already is with the low participation rates it recorded.
Unfortunately, this debate is very much like the chicken and the egg. Do we hold an election waiting for the voters to show up in the absence of proper democracy preconditions or do we create social, political and legislative frameworks that could ensure the realisation of democracy whenever an election is held? Egypt has held parliamentary elections for years now, and the cumulative democratic result of these elections was nil. Perhaps it’s about time to actually learn from our past mistakes, a virtue so much forgotten in Egypt since the 1950s.