Hey friends who are political scientists or Lebanese: how do multi-round elections, with staggered dates for different parts of the country and well-publicized early rounds, tend to affect voter behavior and election results?
Egypt’s amazingly cumbersome parliamentary election process, as though designed (like Iraq’s) to produce gridlock and purple-finger fatigue, is scheduled to go on till March. (The Al-Jazeera graphic linked above looks like something developed by Rube Goldberg — and it’s not AJE’s fault.) Monday and Tuesday’s voting was only for the first of three rounds of the lower of two houses. Individual-candidate results are supposed to be released today, but list-based results won’t be available till January, and the Shura Council (upper house) elections won’t start till after that. Oh and some candidates are running for both (imagine, like campaigning simultaneously for the house and the Senate?)
The problem is that meanwhile, someone needs to put together a government, because the (non-)care-taker Essam Sharaf government has, you will remember, tendered its resignation. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the strength of (its own) exit polls giving its Freedom and Justice Party 40% in the first round, has claimed the right to form that government. The Salafi Nour party has contested this, claiming (plausibly) that it stands to pick up a lot of seats when the voting finally gets to Upper Egypt. And SCAF points out that under (its own) constitutional declaration, the executive (in this case SCAF – surprise!) gets to form the government, with no binding input from the recently elected parliamentarians. But they did convene a group of political “symbols” (those presidential contenders and activists who didn’t skip the meeting) to advise them on its makeup. If the Brotherhood decides to take on SCAF, it could be interesting.
A word on “national salvation,” the term still being used to describe the hypothetical next government. No one calls it “national unity” government, because that would imply getting differing parties together and making them actually listen to each other. Instead it is a rhetoric of a single body politic (Hobbes, anyone?) in danger, in need of “rescue.” Anyone who wants to throw a conflicting view into this underlying unanimity — like the protesters still camped in the Midan — is accused of having “private interests”; these, ever since Nasser’s leftist fascism pre-empted Egypt’s liberal project, have been a dirty word.
A week ago, I thought that putting the parliamentary elections first was a terrible move. The opposite process would have produced less instability, less animosity: quick presidential elections within 60 days as mandated by Egypt’s 1971 constitution, then a constitutional convention, and then parliamentary elections once it was determined what the political system would look like. Or even something like Tunisia’s process. Instead Egypt got a summer of mud-slinging and dirty campaign tricks, largely eroding the much-vaunted “spirit of Tahrir.”
But now I think the opposite argument is nearly as valid. With a real choice at the polls (albeit in most cases only between the machine-politics Islamism of the Brotherhood and the ultra-moralizing Islamism of the Salafis) perhaps Egyptian voters may start to feel that differing opinions, even differing interests need not pose a fatal threat to national cohesion. That it is possible for two citizens to disagree politically without one of them necessarily being a traitor. This is a hope rather than a prediction; such tolerance is hard to achieve even in places with a long history of liberal politics. But you do hear people on the phone with their relatives discussing whom to vote for, or reacting to the election results, and it is not all “we are obviously right and they are obviously evil.” This may be precisely because there are so many flavors of Islamism on offer, and likewise so much fragmentation among the liberals, two facts that commentators have generally seen as bad.
Meanwhile the “interests=treason” rhetoric (which I hate, can you tell?) may have its uses, too. The independent weekly Sawt Al-Umma (unfortunately not available online) ran a big investigative piece last week with lavish photos of the villas owned by Field Marshal Tantawi and other SCAF members, and the deeply discounted contracts under which they bought them. Front-page headline: the word “VOID” in gigantic letters, under Tantawi’s signature olive-green cap. An inside subheading: “How the SCAF leaders changed from living in humble apartments in officers’ residence blocks into billionnaires and palace owners in the Mubarak years.” Still doesn’t get to the military’s stranglehold on the economy as a whole, but it’s a start.
Multi-stage elections are really not ideal. We finally moved beyond them in Lebanon to a one-day election in 2009, and it was heralded as a major step forward. Of course, we are a country with less than 3 million voters, which is as many as Egypt loses in its couch.