Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 February 2000
Issue No. 467
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Election reform in the air

By Omayma Abdel-Latif

Official sources confirmed that the government is seriously investigating possible ways to implement full judicial supervision of next November's parliamentary elections.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Counsellor Abdel-Rahim Nafie, head of the Legislative and Constitutional Committee of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), disclosed that "proposals are being thoroughly studied within party circles to ensure that the coming parliamentary elections are held under full judicial supervision".

Under the current electoral system, judges are able to supervise elections in the main polling stations. Nafie said that any amendments in the law will move towards expanding the judicial authority's role so that all polling stations are placed under its full surveillance. An obstacle that might be encountered, however, is the shortage of judges to cover all polling stations which number about 23,000, but Nafie confirmed that measures are being studied by constitutional and legal experts within party ranks to forge a system to ensure that the judicial authority is able to provide the judges needed for election supervision nationwide.

The government's confirmation comes shortly after President Hosni Mubarak promised in a speech to the joint committee of the People's Assembly and the Shura Council that "clean parliamentary elections will be held under full judicial supervision". Many observers see the move as part of a government scheme to introduce changes in the electoral system law in response to the opposition's long-standing demands for political guarantees of free and fair elections. Full judicial supervision of the elections has been the primary concern of the opposition parties. Pro-government sources view the move as a determined attempt on the government's part to foster a democratic society and compelling evidence of its intention to move forward with political reform. Opposition parties, which want to be recognised as a major force in the shaping of rules and regulations of the forthcoming elections, however, remained sceptical and expressed fears that it might be "another electioneering trick" by the ruling party to pre-empt attempts by the opposition to press for more political reform.

"The government wants to take the political reform issue off the political agenda, but we will make sure it stays on," Sameh Ashour, a Nasserist MP, said. Ashour was among a group of opposition figures who submitted a request last week to the People's Assembly's Proposals and Complaints Committee to look into a draft proposal to revise the electoral system law and enact a new law on the exercise of political rights. Hussein Abdel-Razik of the Tagammu Party described the current law, issued in 1956 under a one-party system, as incompatible with the multi-party system. Official sources, however, denied that a new law on the exercise of political rights was in the cards.

Although it was never fully implemented, the concept of judicial supervision over elections is a fundamental constitutional right, according to Abdel-Mohsen Farag, head of the Shura Council's Legislative Committee. "It has always been optional for the judge posted in the main polling station in a given constituency to inspect the nearby stations, but the amendment we recommend should make it obligatory to appoint a judge in every polling station no matter how small it might be," Farag told the Weekly.

Commenting on whether the number of judges would be sufficient to cover all polling stations, Mohsen said that the possibility of the elections being held in two phases should seriously be considered. Other officials, however, did not agree with this view. While the NDP's Nafie ruled out such a possibility on the basis that it will delay the courts' activities, Farag welcomed the idea as the only possible solution.

Most opposition figures were solidly united behind the idea that judicial supervision should run the electoral process in every polling station to guarantee that neither the administrative authorities nor the police interfere in the election at any stage. Some went even further to suggest that the judges overseeing the elections should not be appointed by the Supreme Council of Judges, which is affiliated to the Justice Ministry, but should rather be selected by the Judges Union, which is an independent body.

Head of the Nasserist Party Diaaeddin Dawoud also suggested that the minister of justice should be denied any power in the process, since he is part of the executive authority and this might affect the elections results. Responding to this proposal, Nafie explained that the judicial authority is completely independent of the executive authority and that the affiliation to the justice minister is only administrative and would in no way affect the judicial supervision of the elections.

While many believe that the interplay between opposition forces and the government is bound to affect the future of any possible electoral system reforms, the judicial authorities, according to Cairo University's law professor Atef El-Banna, can play a major role in safeguarding the legal transition towards political liberalisation. Some opposition figures remain hopeful that Mubarak will use his weighty constitutional and political powers to advance the democratisation process on a much larger scale.

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