In the aftermath of an election, nations that seek continuous improvement would sit back and reflect on lessons that can be learnt from such an event. The actual exercise of decision-making, where the state calls upon the people to partake in the process, is a mini course in the fundamentals of democratic practices. And as Egypt has concluded the 2015 parliamentary elections and is currently undergoing its teething stage in democracy, it would be wise to table those issues that deserve praise, those that need improvement, and those that require complete elimination, to reach a model that best serves the Egyptian people.
As there are numerous defects within the Egyptian election process, this article will address the notorious concept of “runoffs” or “two round” elections, the process whereby the first phase of voting does not produce a winner with a clear majority vote, so the electorate is asked once more to come back to cast their vote on the top candidates who earned the most votes in the first phase.
Voter apathy is a common syndrome in almost all democracies all over the world. In Egypt it is worse. When voter turnout was higher in the ballots following the January revolution, it was recorded that the waiting queues can stretch for kilometres in length, voters line up from 8am only to cast their votes past noon. This is usually due to the inefficiency in the voting process, as polling stations can only accommodate one or two voters at a time. Add to that the confusion the voters meet in deciding for whom to vote for, as the ballot paper presented to them has tens of candidates to pick from with no clear policies and confusing party ideologies.
After the Egyptian voters put in time and effort to fulfil their democratic obligations towards their nation, in many cases the state basically tells them that their vote did not decide the outcome, and that they need to be hassled once more and come next week to vote again. This, of course, always leads to voter fatigue and a much lower turn out in the runoff, the absence of voters creates a gap, which becomes a breeding ground for illicit methods of voter bribery.
In the past, during the days of the Muslim Brotherhood, they were efficient at mobilising voters to show up to runoff elections. Almost every runoff election in the 2012 parliamentary election was won by the Brotherhood. This is because they are the masters at voter mobilisation against competing candidates. They would usually fill up buses with voters with the promise of grocery items to take back home, and these individuals would vote for the Brotherhood candidate, not voting on the basis of who best represents them in parliament or casting their votes in favour of those with talent. In the 2015 elections, in the absence of the Brotherhood, an old method of the Mubarak regime reared its ugly head. Many observers and the Egyptian media reported that purchasing votes was prevalent in several electorates at the runoff phase. There were claims that prices had reached in the hundreds of pounds, some exceeding EGP 1,000 per vote.
An example of where a runoff vote had its toll on the process can be seen in the elections of the affluent constituency of Heliopolis and Nozha. In the first phase, 44 candidates competed for two seats in the chamber. No two candidates reached a majority vote, so the top four candidates had to re-contest the vote in a runoff, in a week’s time. Fatima Naoot, a known Egyptian poet and writer, was amongst the top four. Not only that, but she came first with over 40,000 votes with a gap of 15,000 votes between her and the candidate who was trailing her. Naoot was very impressed by her achievement, and whether it was her lack of understanding of the voting process or a tactic to psych-out her opponents, she utilised different means of social media to show off her impressive numbers and repeatedly announced that she will win the runoff election in an absolute landslide. This was a very unfortunate tactic on her behalf, as she did not concentrate on active campaigning for the upcoming vote and working on mobilising support for her cause, while her opponents did.
When the outcome of the runoff came out, Naoot ended up with less than 32,000 votes, coming third and losing the election. It was very hard for her to comprehend this result; she resorted to insinuating that some form of corruption was at play, using the drop in her numbers as the logic behind her claim. But this is where Naoot got it completely wrong. A runoff election is a totally new election altogether, there is no guarantee that the same voters will turn out to the second phase, and if they do they might completely change to whom they would vote.
What really led to her loss comes down to the most unfair and horrendous aspect of a runoff vote. For a candidate to be able to read beforehand how the electorate will vote offers a great advantage to his or her campaign. Naoot’s opponents observed from the results of the first phase the trend of voting in the electorate, and which demographics are sympathetic to her, and which are not.
They also established alliances with the losing candidates, who achieved a substantial number of votes in the first phase, and campaigned hard with the two winning candidates, asking their supporters from the first phase to transfer their support as they toured the electorate with them. The winning candidates knew that mobilisation is the way to win this election. Unfortunately for Naoot she failed to mobilise, and only concentrated on bragging about her initial numbers and prematurely declared her victory with no substance.
Naoot’s behaviour after the results was rather shocking and appalling, as she showed a lack of good sportsmanship, spreading baseless accusations of voter bribery, political prostitution and constant complaints of being targeted for character assassination. But then again, no one ever claimed that the political game was a clean one, even though before the runoff, she constantly declared that this would be Egypt’s finest election ever. Naoot always states that she seeks enlightenment and beauty in everything and everyone, a statement she constantly repeats, almost as a personal motto. However, her reaction at the conclusion of the election took us to a rather dark and ugly place.
This is not the type of Egyptian polity that the youth of Egypt died for in the last four years. For an individual with her stature, it was expected of her to come out and teach us how a candidate should accept defeat with grace and honour, by congratulating the two winning candidates and wishing them luck in serving the people of their electorate and offering her full support for them when she is called upon. Instead, we were given a flash back of how the Brotherhood reacted when Mohamed Morsi was removed from office, albeit at a non-violent scale. So it is advisable to all current and future politicians, that this is not the best example to heed. The Egyptian people deserve politicians of a higher standard of pedigree.
It is rather disappointing that Naoot did not use her influence via her writings and advocacy to outline the unfairness and inefficiency of the runoff election system, and campaign for it to be replaced, so elections are decided from the outset on the night of the first phase. There are several methods that can be used to reach a final outcome, such as the ranking voting system. If her heart is truly in the right place, and if she dreams for a better Egypt as she always claims, this would be her challenge, to rid us of this unfair and costly system, especially since it has served her unfairly. But in this day and age, it seems intellectuals have become nothing more than word masons, charlatans for their own personal agendas.
Robert Boulos has a degree in History & English Literature from the University of Western Sydney, and a degree in Computer Science from Macquarie University. He is currently responsible for the software development environment in a leading multinational electronics and systems organisation serving defence, aerospace and space, security, and transport markets in Australia and throughout the world.