Cairo — Electoral systems are slippery things.  Political players often try to grab hold and point them in one direction or another to obtain an electoral advantage, and sometimes regret their decisions later—witness the famous 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, in which Fatah shaped a system to its liking only to find out it played to the strengths of Hamas.  A day of meetings to discuss the system that Egypt will use for its first post-revolutionary elections left me with a number of questions about technical points that might prove important:

  • How votes get turned into seats:  For the proportional representation part of the parliament (two-thirds of the People’s Assembly), the Higher Electoral Commission has not yet made explicit which system it will use to translate votes into seats—a highly unusual situation with only 36 hours to go until the elections begin.  It comes down to a decision about what will happen with the “remainder,” that is, the extra votes beyond those required to get a seat.  Let’s say, for example, that in a given district there are 100,000 total votes and 4 seats, so that to win a seat outright requires 25,000 votes.  If List A gets 35,000 votes, List B gets 25,000, and several other lists fail to cross the 25,000 vote threshold, what happens?  Do the extra 10,000 votes from List A get redistributed to List C, which got 10,000?  Does List A, the highest vote-getter, get the other two seats, thereby getting 75 percent of the seats? Or do A and B each get two seats?   It is not clear right now whether the system will be clearly established ahead of Monday or electoral commissioners will leave themselves discretion to decide later—a worrisome situation.  It seems a highly technical point right now, but parties are likely to get persnickety if they fear they are being done out of seats.
  • Announcing electoral results:  One of the problems associated with a multi-stage election such as Egypt’s is that there are difficult decisions about when to announce results—after each stage or at the end of all? For the one-third of seats that are individual/majoritarian, this is straightforward: after each round the vote totals will be announced and there will be a runoff one week later if no candidate won 50 percent of the vote.  For the two-thirds proportional seats, however, it is technically impossible for the electoral commission to announce full results after each round.  Authorities could announce how many votes each list got in each district, and from what I heard today that is what they intend to do.  But the lists will not know how many seats they won in each district until the end of the process because they have to meet some complicated criteria, such as winning at least 0.5 percent of the vote nationwide and having the right number of farmers and workers, which cannot be calculated until all rounds are over.  So there will be lists who know that they won, for example, 20 percent of the vote in a district and expect to get a seat, only to find out weeks later that they will not.
  • Overnight ballot box security: The Higher Electoral Commission’s decision to hold voting over two days is generally getting high marks from Egyptians, who believe it will push voter turnout up significantly.  Some of my Egyptian interlocutors predicted that 30 million out of the 52 million eligible voters will turn out, more than did so for the March constitutional referendum.  But what will the judge supervising each polling station do with the ballot boxes at the end of the first day?  Count the votes and note the tallies?  Or lock the boxes up and hope no-one tampers with them?  It sounds as though the latter is the current plan, but it leaves much room for doubt and questions.

Tahrir is still roiling, with the focus being mostly on rejection of Prime Minister-designate Ganzouri (al-Masry al-Youm depicted him on the front page today within an antique gold frame, calling the 78 year old “a man from the past”).  Activists there seem disunited on whether or not to participate in elections; some I saw interviewed on an independent Egyptian television station this evening said that they would continue to demonstrate and also would go to vote on Monday, seeing the parliamentary elections as essential to establishing a civilian body with a mandate that rivals that of the SCAF.  Others quoted in al-Shuruq newspaper said they would consider the results of elections being held under the current circumstances to be invalid. 

With my official credentials as an election “follower” (mutaabi’) in hand, I leave for Port Said (Mediterranean port and industrial city, population about 600,000) in the morning to observe the elections there.  

Michele Dunne is the director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and an official observer of the first stage of the parliamentary elections. She can be reached at

Photo Credit: Reuters