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Egypt Needs Proportional Electoral System

Elections based on single-member districts may contribute to sectarianism, corruption and instability in Egypt.
Egyptians stand in a line to cast their votes during the presidential elections in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, 230 km (143 miles) north of Cairo May 24, 2012. Egyptians, choosing their leader freely for the first time in history, voted for a second day on Thursday in an election that is a fruit of last year's popular revolt against Hosni Mubarak.  REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany  (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS) - RTR32KCR

It seems that Egypt’s new administration is inclined to adopt a “majority election system” with single-member districts for the upcoming parliamentary elections. According to Ali Awad, the constitutional adviser to interim President Adly Mansour and the rapporteur of the 10-member constitutional experts committee, most proposals received by the committee have requested adopting the single-member district system, and not the proportional representation (list) system. He added that this and other controversial issues will be left for the “50-member constituent assembly” to decide upon.

Most secular and even Islamist political parties vocally came out opposing this trend.  A statement signed by 24 parties and women’s organizations has requested that the committee amend the constitution by deleting Article 191, which provides for single-member districts in the parliament and local elections, and adopt the proportional lists system for all parliamentary seats at this stage, stressing that this would be an important factor in supporting women’s participation in the political process especially if the law would require political parties to place women near the top of their proportional lists.

In May 2012, immediately after the first round of the presidential elections, I wrote an article titled, “Voters’ messages hold the key to resolving the political crisis.” The first message was the election result itself, which showed that no single political current could claim to speak for all Egyptians. The second message came from the 75% of Egyptian voters who refused to be ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide. The third message came from 64% of Egyptian voters who rejected Mubarak’s regime with its figures and symbols. Also, 75% said that they were with the revolution in all its new and diverse forces, and the 99% who said that they wanted to preserve the Egyptian state and opposed chaos in the name of the revolution, because a revolution is not an amusement park bumper car to be driven by zealous activists seeking an adrenaline rush through violent collisions.

But the election’s most important message was that parliament was flawed and does not truly represent Egyptians. The religious current, which won nearly 70% of parliamentary seats, received only around 33% of the votes in the first round of the presidential election. So when the Supreme Constitutional Court annulled the parliament two weeks after the results of the first presidential election round had been announced, it was actualizing the voice of the people. No one demonstrated against the court’s decision, except a few member deputies.

Eight years before that, I was in a workshop with Brotherhood figure Essam al-Erian. I asked him, “If there were a fair election tomorrow, how well do you expect the Muslim Brotherhood to do?” He said about 25%. Less than a year later, in the 2005 parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood did indeed get about 20% of the vote as part of a deal with Mubarak’s regime, while other political forces were brutally pushed aside. So how did the 25% that Morsi received, and which matched the Brotherhood’s own estimates, end up granting the Brotherhood 46% of parliamentary seats? The answer lies in the flawed road map and the Egyptian electoral system.

The purpose of an electoral system is to accurately reflect Egypt’s political structure in all its diversity (which ensures that no current monopolizes power) and to represent society’s various interests in all its sects and regions. In Egypt’s current transitional phase, the electoral system must also encourage political development to fill the void created by the dissolution of the National Democratic Party (NDP) and the structural shocks that will hit the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, even if temporarily.

Egypt had no actual political life for decades before the January 2011 revolution. So the electoral system should also help groups whose parliamentary representation was historically marginalized, such as women, Christians and young people. The electoral system should produce a “new political elite” that can govern the country and lead it into the future by boosting another marginalized group: intellectuals, opinion leaders and technocrats. Those have rarely been able to win electoral seats because of an electoral system that was based on tribal politics and huge spending, which inevitably leads to corruption. Egypt has greatly suffered from “reverse selection” whereby corruption forces honest and competent elements out, while empowering corrupt and mediocre ones. Natural principle, “survival for the fittest” devolved to “survival for the most corrupt.”

All electoral systems have advantages and disadvantages. So we may need to adopt a hybrid system that includes proportional representation for partisan and independents’ lists while temporarily allocating a percentage of seats for traditionally marginalized groups. The best solution may be to adopt the proportional list system, but with smaller districts with an added national list, having 10% of seats, for these marginalized groups.

Egypt has 358 geographic administrative units. One idea is combine each two units to form one electoral district, where parties or independents can field lists of four candidates each for the district, thus resulting in 716 members. In addition, each party or a group of independents can field a nation-wide 72-member list of opinion leaders and public figures. Political parties and independents would compete to place their candidates on that list. Half of that list would be women, half would be young people and half would be Christians, with overlap among these quotas.

Thus, the total number of parliamentary seats would be 788 members (716+72), compared to 498 in the 2011 parliament.

This proposed system, which is based on proportional representation, will have the advantage that no votes are wasted, as would happen in the single-member system. This system also encourages a genuine democratic process where political parties are strengthened while competing by showcasing their programs demonstrating how they can achieve equitable development and social justice, as contrasted to the old single-member system where tribal politics and big money dominated the scene leading to corruption and nepotism

To illustrate how votes get wasted in the single-member district system, let’s consider a district in which the top vote-getters in Party A earn 14% of the vote and those in Party B get 11%: The runoff election would be between those two parties and three-quarters of the votes would have gone to waste.

And if Party A and Party B are the country’s two largest parties, the same situation would occur in most districts. Thus, two parties whose combined popularity is only a quarter of the voters could grab nearly all parliamentary seats. Smaller parties would not reach parliament and would not participate in making legislation and policies.

Worse, three-quarters of voters would not feel represented in the parliament or the government. So they may return to the streets to practice “crowd democracy.” Instability would increase and the economy, which has been continuously bleeding since 2011, would further suffer.

But if we apply the proportional list system, Party A would get 14% of the seats and Party B would get 11% of the seats, with three-quarters of the seats going to other parties and independents. Even small parties would get to participate in proportion to their vote shares once as they surpass the minimum threshold.

The biggest beneficiaries of single-member districts are Islamist parties, which have members who are bound by al-Samaa wa Ta’aa (listen and obey) oath. With only one candidate running for each seat he or she will get all the votes of his party’s popular votes. In fact, Islamist candidates will get even more considering the superior financial and organizational power of the Islamist parties.

Only the two candidates who receive the most votes, even if only 10% or 15%, will go to the runoff. In the single-member districts in the 2011 elections, the runoff round was often between Brotherhood and Salafist candidates (both belonging to the Islamist current), which in theory could obtain all parliamentary seats, even though Islamist parties received only about 33% of the votes in the 2012 presidential elections.

In the 2011 elections, which had a mixed system, the Muslim Brotherhood obtained 37% of the seats in the proportional list districts and 60% of the seats in the single-member districts. A single-member district in 2011 election covered a geographic area three times bigger on average than that in the 2010 election. That is why I proposed increasing the number of parliamentary seats to keep the districts relatively small.

In the single-member district system, the civil current (secular) votes, which are the majority (about two-thirds of the votes according to the results of the first round of the 2012 presidential election), get spread out over a large number of independent candidates that are not connected ideologically or organizationally with one another, and that prevents them from agreeing on who among them would step down in favor of the contenders with a better chance to win.

In 2011, there was an average of 74 candidates for each single-member district. In that situation, Islamist parties, who would usually have only one or two candidates per seat, had a clear advantage, no matter how unpopular they may be, because the votes of the pro-civil-state constituency were fragmented over so many candidates.

This represents a danger to the country, the political process and the Islamist current itself, against which the people revolted mainly because that current grabbed state power way beyond its actual popular support. The proportional system, in which each party list or independents list is given seats proportional to how many votes it gets, solves that problem.

It is also necessary that all political forces are fairly represented in the next parliament in order to pass legislation and reform policies that are not populist in nature. Those necessary decisions may cause some temporary suffering to the people. But it is necessary to reform the dysfunctional economy, the subsidization of energy prices, and the excessive number of government employees, and pass other austerity measures that would require political consensus.

Genuine political development requires strengthening the development of political parties and linking politics, even if temporarily, to strong institutional entities that would compete in formulating programs and solutions. Those strong political parties would be better able at confronting extremist groups, especially when those groups are supported by international clandestine networks that grant them organizational as well as funding advantages which are hard to match, in hidden ways which are difficult to trace or prosecute.

Single-member districts weaken and may even kill political parties. Instead of making those parties fill the vacuum arising from the dissolution of the NDP and possibly the Muslim Brotherhood, single-member districts shrink political parties to the point where the political process falls into the hands of the “deep state,” where such vacuum will only be filled by expanding reliance on security apparatus. With weak political parties, the role of the security apparatus will grow, because it will be forced to confront the growing influence of extremist groups that would fill the vacuum.

Some suggest that only the next election should take place according to the single-member district for one time only. After that, groups of deputies would join to form new parties. This reminds us of how the old ruling party (NDP) was born from a womb of authority. And although this idea may have merit, I suspect that it risks reproducing the old regime, which was infested with corruption and tyranny before the January revolution. It was a regime where power was shared between the NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood. The pillars of that regime were tribal politics, capitalist control, a political corruption network, and the exploitation of the voters’ religious sentiments. So the idea regarding a one-time election based on single-member districts may lead to sectarian conflicts, increase the risk of instability, thus harming the economy, and possibly setting the stage for future revolutions and more economic and social suffering. 

Wael Nawara is an Egyptian writer and activist. He is also the co-founder of Al Dostor Party, the National Association for Change and El Ghad Party. Formerly president of  the Arab Alliance for Freedom and Democracy, he was a visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. On Twitter: @WaelNawara

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