Egypt’s ruling generals on Saturday agreed to cancel a controversial provision barring members of political parties from running as independents. This latest concession by the military council includes the formation of a legal framework to combat electoral fraud, violence and vote-buying.
However, such amendments are not likely to create a parliament that is more representative, analysts say. Moreover, it could help political parties with Islamist backgrounds dominate the next parliament.
On Saturday, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued a decree canceling Article 5 of the Amended Law of the People’s Assembly and Shura Council – issued on 27 September – that stipulated members of political parties are not allowed to run for single-winner seats.
Political parties voiced concern over rules restricting nominations, alleging that this opens a third of the parliament – the proportion of parliament allocated for single-winner seats – up to control by the remnants of the Mubarak regime.
Political parties want to eliminate ex-members of Mubarak's party, who might stand for re-election as independents, from the electoral race, which is intended to steer the country to civilian rule.
But the new amendments create fresh complications.
“This amendment [to allow members of political parties to run as individuals] creates a dilemma since it gives members of political parties two options, either to run as part of a party list or as an individuals. Independents candidates have only one chance,” said Gehad Ouda, a professor of political sciences at Helwan University. The same candidate cannot run as both an independent and as part of a list at the same time.
Under Mubarak, elections were based on the single-winner system, which was designed to ensure solid majorities for his ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
In the old electoral system, electoral battles were highly centered on candidates’ characters rather than on political programs. The single-winner system is believed to be responsible for the rise of violence, widespread vote buying and importance of tribal and familial ties to electoral outcomes.
Political party activists said the system weakened parties.
“The single-winner system caused an electoral scene in which political parties were weak and couldn’t influence the electorates. But political parties are still weak and this new electoral system will only help the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood dominate parliament,” said Ouda.
Since Mubarak left office, the Muslim Brotherhood – once banned under Mubarak – has formed a political party. The Salafi movement, traditionally an apolitical force, has formed three registered political parties.
“Those are the real political powers that can take advantage of the amendments. They have their own parties that will contest over two-thirds of seats. They can also recruit their vast number of supporters to contest the remaining single-winner seats,” said Ouda.
SCAF has also issued a decree in which eight articles of the political participation law were amended and two new articles were added.
The articles contain penalties and fines for various electoral offenses, which include impeding judges from doing their work, buying votes, or using violence to influence electoral outcomes.
"Those provisions might be an improvement, but the shortcomings of the legal framework regulating elections still exist," said Ouda. “In democracy, you have to encourage people to participate in elections, not to threaten them by fines and prisons.”
Article 40 of the amended law sets a fine of up to LE500 for anyone who refrains from voting. A person voting more than once will receive a prison sentence, as will anyone who damages ballot boxes. A fine of up to LE10,000 will be imposed on those who employ religious slogans, gender or ethnic discrimination. Hindering people from voting or involvement in vote-buying will result in prison sentences ranging from one to five years and fines between LE10,000 and LE100,000.
Another problem posed by the provisions is that the only institution responsible for preventing and prosecuting electoral crimes is the Ministry of Interior, which many believe has neglected its responsibilities after angry protestors burned down police stations during the uprising. Security members are believed to be negligent in enforcing the law and ensuring security.
“This election is highly important and needs to be protected by the police, which are in its weakest position right now. The question remains: how can you ensure safe elections in such an atmosphere?” said Ouda.
For Ouda, the most crucial question about the elections is how much parties and candidates will spend. The law, even after the amendments, does not regulate campaign spending.
“The law said that it criminalizes those who are buying votes. But if you see a party giving money to electorates at festivals before the polls, would you consider this as vote buying? What if you have a party that spends millions of pounds campaigning? The law doesn’t answer such questions,” he said.