The Implications of Egypt’s Proposed Electoral System (Long)

Photo property of David Jandura

This September, Egypt is scheduled to hold much anticipated elections for its national parliament, which for the first time in decades will be free of the National Democratic Party’s (NDP) authoritarian dominance of the polls.  In its place, however, is an unpredictable political environment comprised of a fractionalized and disorganized party system.  The lack of certainty over electoral laws combined with the short time span to campaign has led many parties to call for the election’s postponement.   With so little time to organize, they argue, the early polls will unfairly benefit the Muslim Brotherhood who, running under their newly formed Justice and Freedom Party, will now be free of the relenting police presence that followed their campaigns during the rule of the NDP.   This complaint is not without merit; the fractured party system in Egypt may severely hurt liberal parties while benefiting the better organized Brotherhood.  Especially troublesome for liberal parties is the proposed electoral system, which forces a level of coordination that they are presently unequipped to handle.  Conservative parties such as the Brotherhood, however, will have a much easier time navigating the system’s rules and devising an optimal strategy.  A recent survey by Gallup placed support for the Brotherhood at 15 percent of the population. While this may be an accurate reading, it may also be dramatically underestimating their actual performance in an electoral system that favors coordinated actors and local elites.

For a clear illustration of why electoral systems are important, one doesn’t even have to leave the region.  In 2006, the Palestinian Territories held elections for the 132-member Legislative Council.  The election, primarily contested by the ruling Fatah Party of Prime Minster Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, was held during the height of the Bush Administration’s “Freedom Agenda,” which hoped to build off of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and spread democracy through the Middle East.  Unfortunately for the Bush Administration, America’s favored party, Fatah, was defeated at the polls. While the results were not a surprise to the few who bothered to pay attention to on-the-ground developments, they shocked many Western observers.  That Hamas had won was surprising enough, but the lopsided margin of seats captured convinced some that Palestinians voted overwhelmingly in favor of the more radical alternative.  While Hamas’ victory can be attributed to many factors, the margin by which they won was primarily a result of their understanding the electoral system.  In fact, had Fatah understood the electoral system to the same degree that their Islamist rival did, it’s quite possible they could have squeaked out a victory.  Had pundits in the West bothered to learn the same, they may not have been so shocked at results, which were in reality, predictable well before the final ballot was cast.

Photo property of IFES

At the time, the Palestinian Territories utilized what is known as a parallel voting system, where 66 seats were awarded through a party-list proportional representation system and 66 were awarded through multi-member districts.  Voters first had the option of casting a vote for a party in the proportional representation tier, where all party votes were tallied and seats were allocated proportionally.  So if a party received 60 percent of proportional votes, they would receive roughly 60 percent of the proportional seats.  The results for these seats then should nearly perfectly resemble the population’s preference in terms of party strength.  In the second tier of seats, however, electors cast votes for as many candidates as there were seats in their district.  So if a district had four seats, a voter was able to choose their top four candidates.  Candidates could stand under party labels, but they still ran as individuals.  While parallel voting is far from uncommon in the world, it proved too complicated for Fatah, who despite designing the system, were either unable or unwilling to use an optimal strategy for maximizing their seat total.  While Hamas sensibly ran as many candidates as there were seats in a district, the poorly organized Fatah ran more.  In a district with three open seats, for example, Fatah ran four or five candidates.  This “tactic” had the result of a party running its own candidates against each other; forcing their supporters to split their votes and dilute their influence.   While those paying close attention to the campaign understood the impending disaster Fatah was unleashing on itself, others outside the country continued to follow the election as if support for a party would directly translate into seats won.  They were surprised then, when Fatah only captured 45 seats, compared to Hamas’ 74.  Although the margin of victory in the proportional tier was a small three percent, the district-based seats went overwhelmingly to Hamas, by a margin of 28 seats.

Fatah’s blunder in Palestine serves as an extreme example of electoral institutions’ importance.  Electoral system design, however, has consequences in every country.  As Egypt prepares for parliamentary elections in September, political parties continue to haggle over the rules of the game. They do so for good reason; Egypt’s proposed method of translating votes into seats will have several important implications that may greatly alter the final performance of political parties.   Any attempt to predict election performance then, must take into account a full understanding of Egypt’s proposed electoral system.

In May, Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the interim government managing the country’s transition process, released a draft law for the new electoral system.  The proposed system is somewhat similar to what was previously in place, and bears a resemblance to the parallel voting system used in Palestine in 2006. Like in Palestine, there is a tier of seats awarded proportionally and a tier that supports individual candidates.  The proportional tier, currently proposed to encompass one-third of all seats, is the only real new addition to the system.  A welcome – albeit insufficient – change, the inclusion of party lists should add a degree of proportionality while strengthening the fractionalized and weak party system that currently exists.  

The remaining two-thirds of seats perfectly resemble the previous system that has been in place since 1990. In this tier, 444 members are elected by absolute majority vote through a two-round system and ten members are appointed by the president.  (During the last election in 2010, the government also created a special tier of 64 seats reserved for female candidates)  The country is broken into 222 districts, each of which elects two candidates; one seat in each district being reserved for a worker or farmer.  Furthermore, every voter is required to vote for two candidates.  If no candidate receives an absolute majority – more than fifty percent of the vote – in the first round, a second round is held one week later.  For example, if one thousand people vote in a district, a candidate must secure five hundred votes in the first round to avoid a runoff.   If one candidate manages to meet this requirement, the next two candidates compete in the second round for the remaining seat.  If no candidate does, the second round will contain the top four vote-getters form the first round.  While the exact reasons for the creation of this odd system is unknown, it was probably an attempt to design a system that would allow the government to control local powerbrokers, while easily maintaining the sacrosanct worker of farmer clause introduced by President Gamal Abdul Nasser.  (By using two-seat districts, they could easily ensure a system where half of representatives belonged to this class)

Because electors cast two votes for two seats, Egypt’s system somewhat resembles a block voting system, which is common in the Middle East and similar to the one that Hamas used to its advantage in Palestine.  Ideally, block voting is designed to give voters multiple choices in an election and allow them to vote for split party tickets.  In reality, however, it’s usually a very undemocratic system, with the only intention being to artificially inflate ruling parties’ majorities.  Egypt’s fractionalized party system, however, may not produce the typical block vote results.  Instead, the lack of institutionalized parties, combined with the second round runoff, will create an electoral system that places tremendous power in the hands of local elites and conservative factions.  In fact, Egypt’s electoral system will benefit conservative factions and harm liberal parties in three distinct ways:  the need it creates for effective coordination, the power it affords to local elites, and its unrepresentative district boundaries.

A traditional model of party systems would predict Egypt’s electoral system to produce three effective parties.  That is, one more than the number of open seats per district.  It may be the case that given enough elections, Egypt’s current party system would consolidate to that number, but at the moment there are far more parties competing than seats available.  Most of the party fractionalization exists on the left of the political spectrum where a wide range of parties with conflicting ideologies will compete for similar voters.  The neo-liberal Wafd party had little in common with the socialist al-Tagummu, yet they both stand in opposition to an Islamist state.  The telecoms tycoon Naguib Sawris, aware of this disparity, has recently created his Free Egyptians Party as a way to consolidate votes on the left. It remains to be seen, however, how successful this effort will be.  There are consequences for this mismatch between the left and right spectrum, consequences that will very likely disadvantage liberal political parties.

All electoral systems force tactical voting, but Egypt’s will place an extraordinary burden on secular voters.  In order to cast a tactical vote, a citizen must know the relative strength of each party.  This allows an individual to avoid wasting a vote on a party that has no chance of winning, while picking the best option that has a realistic shot at victory.  In Egypt, the electoral viability of any given party or candidate in a district will be largely unknown.  Public opinion polling is expensive, technically illegal unless cleared by the government, and is unlikely to be carried out in all 222 districts.  Formal models that predict the effective number of parties, optimal organization strategies for parties, and tactical voting decisions by electors, are all based on the assumption that actors have an understanding of the parties’ strength.  This lack of information will disproportionality hurt secular and liberal parties, while favoring the more organized Brotherhood.

Consider a hypothetical district in the Delta region.  No actors are quite sure of the relative strength of their parties but it is believed the Brotherhood could pull anywhere between 30 and 60 percent of the vote.  In this district, an alliance of three secular parties could reasonably decide to work together to create a secular alternative.  For this example, let us assume that three secular parties all feel they can be competitive in this district but know that if they all run two candidates; they will split the vote and ensure the Brotherhood wins both seats.  They could decide to allow one party to field two candidates, while the other two run unopposed in similar districts.  In this way, liberal parties could coordinate their efforts and maximize their coalition seat total.  While assuming the leadership of the existing parties would be willing to employ such a strategy is unclear, it’s uncertain they could do so even if they wanted.  The complexity of the two-round system would make such a task far too daunting for existing parties, as too many unknowns would impede effective coordination.  While they should obviously not make Fatah’s blunder of running three or more candidates in a two-seat district, it may not always be advantageous to run a full slate everywhere. Many parties may have limited resources and could be unable to field two quality candidates in every district.  They will have to prioritize, but prioritizing is hard when you lack information.  If secular parties are unable coordinate, voters will be left to their own intuition in picking the most likely winner. This is an unrealistic demand to place on a voter in any country, and one that the average Egyptian would most likely fail to meet.  The Brotherhood will need to prioritize resources as well, but they occupy a space on the right of the political spectrum larger than any one party occupies on the left.  A voter looking to cast a meaningful vote for an Islamist party, in other words, has a far easier time than a voter looking to cast a meaningful vote for a non-Islamist party.

The ability of party leaders to coordinate on this level, however, may be a mute point for another reason: with the demise of the dominant NDP, local powerbrokers may wield more influence than decision makers in Cairo.  Egypt’s system is highly candidate centric; powerful, well-known individuals should be successful without the need to rely on a party label.  In systems where parties are strong and institutionalized, they are able to recruit candidates who they feel can advance their agenda.  In contrast, Egyptian parties will vie for strong candidates to run under their party label.  Hopefully the party-list tier can mitigate some of the influence of local elites, but the small number of seats proposed to be awarded this way will probably make it an insufficient effort.  Instead, the two-round, two-seat system will create an incentive for local elites to make grand bargains that further undermine the party system.  Two elites, for example, can make a bargain where they tell their supporters to cast their two votes for each of them – a de facto joint ticket.   Those same elites could then make separate deals with weaker candidates.  This would entail a promise to support the weaker candidate in the second round (should they make it) in exchange for first-round support for themselves.  A particularly strong local candidate or local organization may even be able to wield influence beyond their own party.  Let’s say, for example, that the Brotherhood decides to run only one candidate in a particular district (which may be the case given their stated intention to not contest all seats).  The endorsement of this top candidate will become a much sought after prize for all remaining individuals.  This will give the organization considerable leverage over seats they aren’t evening contesting.  This dynamic will only further undermine the collective action strategies of liberal parties while benefiting conservative factions that are used to such deal making.  Coordinating is already difficult; it will be much more so when parties have little control over so many candidates.

The strength of individual candidates will also disadvantage liberal parties due to the power of independent candidates.  Although the NDP made it difficult to form a political party, they had considerably less problems with candidates running as independents. The Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned as a formal party, gained all its seats through “independent candidates.”  The lax laws on independent candidates also allowed the NDP to buy off the support of local powerbrokers throughout the country.  While many NDP chosen candidates were defeated at the polls, the party was quick to accept the victorious independents into the party after the election.  This phenomenon is unlikely to go away, although with the NDP out of the picture, the autonomy of local elites will only be enhanced. Many candidates will be able to run based on name recognition and patronage alone.  Although the Muslim Brotherhood has stated that it will only contest half of all seats, it may not have the ability to keep its own promise.  Aside from the fact that the Brotherhood already changed its mind on number of contested seats – upgrading from thirty percent to fifty – there is nothing to stop a local elite from winning a seat and then caucusing with the Brotherhood after the election.  To be fair, this phenomenon could happen with any party, but independents will have a greater incentive to caucus with the largest party in parliament in an effort to increase their own influence and bring the most resources to their district.

Finally, Egypt’s electoral system may benefit the Brotherhood for a reason that plagues many district-based systems: malapportionment.  Egypt’s current electoral boundaries were drawn decades ago, and in very little way resemble the country as it stands now.  The years since the drawing of district boundaries have witnessed a massive influx of residents into both Cairo and Alexandria.  This uncontrolled urbanization has also led to the growth of informal housing, which leaves many poor residents huddled and uncounted in their urban boundaries.  While the urban/rural divide of liberals versus conservatives is not as pronounced in Egypt – the Brotherhood, for example, has a strong presence in Alexandria – the outdated district lines will severely dilute the representation of the liberal middle class.  Rural areas that are overrepresented may not send only Brotherhood members to the parliament, but they will favor a far more conservative segment of society.  The reason for the unrepresentative boundary delimitation is not nefarious; it was simply neglected by the NDP.  If the current boundaries place the next parliament, however, it may be hard to convince the MPs who rely on them to create a more representative system.

Of course these problems may only apply to two-thirds of all seats; there is still the new tier where parties can compete with dueling lists.  A welcome change, liberal parties will still have their work cut out for them in devising the correct strategy for these seats.  For one, the government has not yet released a threshold for entry into parliament.  Most PR systems have a minimum portion of the national vote, typically five percent, which a party must achieve to gain any seats.  This is intended to prevent too many small parties from entering parliament.   With so many parties polling around one percent of the vote, however, any reasonable threshold is likely to cause many Egyptians to cast wasted votes.  Party leaders have stated intentions to run on joint lists (A coalition of six parties called the Egyptian Project has already formed), but the details on how this would be legally permitted have not been released.

While most focus in the Western media will be on Egypt’s presidential elections in November, the People’s Assembly may play a large role in the future of the country.   Significant academic literature has demonstrated that the first democratic election in a country has a lasting impact on its future political environment.  These path-dependent outcomes can create the conditions for future party systems as well as expectations of government institutions.  Results from a recent survey conducted by the International Republican Institute demonstrate the sorry state of political parties in the country; al-Wafd garners the most public support of any party with a paltry six percent.  Most other parties received around one percent of support, if any at all. Furthermore, parties as institutions suffer from worse approval ratings than state-owned media and the hated business community.  Egypt’s current electoral institutions were not designed to provide fair or accurate representation, or to foster a healthy party system; they are the result of an ad-hoc process from a liberalized autocracy attempting to maintain the formal institutions of democracy.  With the demise of that formal regime, its legacy will benefit the most conservative elements of society while hindering the chances for Egypt’s fractionalized liberals.

Posted on June 24, 2011, in Electoral Systems, Middle East and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. You might be interested in my analysis of the debacle that was the electoral system of the Palestinian Territories in 2006 The link is for one of several posts, both before and after the election. In one of the pre-election posts, I pointed out that Hamas would likely outperform its poll ratings and earn a greater advantage in seat allocation than would Fatah. Both predictions proved correct, albeit to greater extents than I had imagined.

  2. Thanks very much for the rundown, David! I’ve been looking around for a good summary of the Egyptian system, and you have provided that and more.

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