By Ahmad Morsey and Casper Wuite
On April 15, the Egyptian Cabinet approved amendments to Egypt’s electoral law, articles of which had been deemed unconstitutional last month. After a year of continued unrest, the parliamentary elections, originally slated for March 21, were expected to restore Egypt’s body politic and highlight the government’s commitment to democracy. Moreover, renewed political stability was to bolster Egypt’s bid to successfully reposition itself on the global investment map. However, the new amendments fall short of fully ensuring “fair representation of the population and governorates and equitable representation of voters,” as mandated by Article 102 of the 2014 constitution. Ultimately, and more importantly, the government’s review of the electoral laws is a missed opportunity for broader electoral reforms.
Ever since outgoing interim President Adly Mansour promulgated the parliamentary law last summer, the potential impact of the electoral system on Egypt’s political trajectory has been widely debated. Political parties and observers alike expressed concerns whether the parliamentary vote would advance a political system that offers greater representation, accountability, and stability or reinforce a return to a system manipulated by the executive.
On March 1, 2015, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) declared the electoral legislation’s provisions on voting districts unconstitutional. The ruling of the court, and the subsequent decision of the Supreme Administrative Court on March 3 to halt all preparations for the elections until the relevant articles are amended, has further delayed the election of Egypt’s first parliament since 2012. On March 4, President al-Sisi responded to the court ruling by instructing the same committee that initially drafted the law to review the court rulings and amend the necessary articles. And on April 15, after several unsuccessful meetings with political parties, the Egyptian Cabinet approved the amendments put forward by the committee.1
The law would increase the number of individual seats in parliament from 420 to 442, while maintaining the number of list seats at 120, and the share of presidential appointments at 5 percent. According to Ibrahim el-Heneidy, Minister of Transitional Justice and Parliamentary Affairs and chair of the committee, these changes required the committee to amend the number of districts (originally 237) as well, but the final number has not yet been announced. While this is in line with the SCC ruling and seems to ensure the legality of the vote, the review of the electoral laws by the government is a missed opportunity to implement broader electoral reforms that would further a pluralistic and accountable political system, not reinforce a system that strengthens the power of the executive.
Even before the SCC made its rulings last month, the districting and allocation of seats had already been one of the most contested electoral issues in post-2011 Egypt. Both in 2013 and 2015 the Supreme Administrative Court suspended preparations for the parliamentary vote after the SCC identified discrepancies in the electoral laws that violate the concepts of fair representation and equitable distribution. The new delineation of electoral districts, originally issued in December 2014 and deemed unconstitutional by the SCC, had actually resulted in more equal—and at times better—representation of voters and governorates (figure 1).
Contrary to the SCC’s ruling, its main weakness was not so much the representation of voters in individual districts (figure 2), but the stark difference in the number of voters per seat between list districts and individual districts, with list districts much worse off comparatively, and the deviation in voting power between governorates in list districts (figure 3). The latter in particular would not seem to comply with the constitutionally mandated goal of equitable distribution of votes.
However, as the court was obliged only to issue rulings based on cases presented, and none of the cases filed questioned the list districting, the SCC could not extend its review of constitutionality to other parts of the electoral framework, such as the list districting. This was also the case in 2012, when the SCC ruled to dissolve the People’s Assembly but could not extend its decision to also dissolve the Shura Council, even though it was elected on the basis of the same unconstitutional law.
Egypt had first adopted a mixed system of party lists and independent candidates to govern its newly emerging democratic order during the 2011 and 2012 parliamentary elections. This departure from the candidate-centered system used since 1990 allowed newly emerging and small parties to compete while retaining opportunities for individuals who were traditionally part of the political system. While Egypt has kept this system, the new electoral rules significantly alter the balance between independent and party-affiliated MPs. In the new parliament, a mere 21.4 percent of elected seats (120 of 590) will go to party or coalition lists, a drastic swing from the two-thirds held by parties in the 2011-2012 People’s Assembly. Improving voter representation in list districts, however, would have required the government to allocate significantly more seats in the new parliament to lists and thereby threaten the political “consensus” around a candidate-centered system.
The extension of the majoritarian electoral formula to the list districts is likely to have a particularly significant impact. During the 2011 and 2012 elections, the “winner-takes-all” formula only applied to seats in individual districts, allocating them to the candidates with the highest number of votes in a district, while party lists won seats through the more representative proportional voting. The decision to extend this formula to list districts may well have been an intentional choice to pursue stable government and effective policymaking at the expense of adequate representation and proportionality. But in its current form the electoral system will create neither an adequately proportional nor particularly stable government.
In electoral systems such as Egypt’s, successful lists are often based on bridging strategies, which are electoral platforms that “are designed to garner votes promiscuously and indiscriminately.” But once in government, allegiances between parties that ran on the same list may prove to be loose and shifting. This can lead to unstable policymaking, further aggravated by the overwhelming presence of independent MPs. Moreover, while the electoral formula and the sheer size of each of the four list districts (comprising multiple governorates) should incentivize parties to form coalitions, infighting among Egypt’s numerous political parties will also constrain the number of coalitions that have a realistic chance of winning.
At the same time, more encouraging provisions in the new electoral legislation, such as quotas for lists’ candidates and seats, will likely fail to increase parliamentary diversity. Under the new electoral system, candidate quotas are discontinued for laborers and farmers, but have been newly legislated for women, youth, disabled persons, Coptic Christians, and expatriates. Yet, unlike the other groups, women do not have a seat quota as high as their candidate quota.
In addition, parties are highly hierarchical and traditionally rely on personalities rather than policies for electoral success. It is likely that each list will select the minimum required number of candidates to fulfill each candidate quota and fill the remainder of the list with middle-aged male candidates who are close to the party leadership or have a large local following. This trend will prove to be even stronger in the individual districts, where no quotas apply.
Lastly, the current electoral system does little to fundamentally change the relationship between voters and MPs and between the legislative and executive branches. While parliament retains meaningful influence under the new constitution, it is not expected to have an “open and critical political culture” in which parliamentarians are willing to check executive power. This, and the expected absence of a majority party, will instead strengthen the position of the president in the legislative process.
Party-centered voting systems and centralized candidate-selection procedures producelegislators who respond primarily to their local party leaders. Party representatives’ weak accountability to local citizens will be compounded by list districts’ vast size, which will sever any links between parties and voters and hamper the development of political party grassroots. In their absence, relations between representatives and voters will rely on patronage networks linking individual MPs from small, multi-member districts to their local constituencies through services.
In light of the continued unrest over the past year and the controversial ouster of President Morsi, the preoccupation of Egypt’s government with political stability and constitutional legitimacy is unsurprising and perhaps natural. Yet the real litmus test for Egypt’s emerging political order is a parliament in which a diverse range of interests are represented and can shape government policy. This requires a healthy degree of party competition, grassroots political party development, and robust institutional checks and balances. With this in mind, the current electoral system indicates nothing more than business as usual.
Ahmed Morsy is an Egyptian researcher and a PhD candidate at the School of International Relations, University of St. Andrews. Follow him on Twitter @ASMorsy. Casper Wuite is a political analyst who worked in Egypt between 2011 and 2014 as an election observer. He is a researcher at the National Security College, Australian National University.