Voice of voters
Turnout in last week's presidential elections was lower than expected, reports Reem Leila
Egypt witnessed several historic moments since the toppling of former president Hosni Mubarak on 11 February last year, and 23 and 24 May which marked the first true presidential elections in Egypt's history where voters did not know in advance who the winner will be, was one of the truly memorable events. Last week, Egyptians of varying age groups, beliefs, occupations and social levels queued for long hours in front of polling stations to cast their ballots to choose the country's next president.
However, even though millions of voters waited patiently under the sun for two successive days, their turnout, according to many experts, was considered low. From the 50.5 million eligible voters, only 23.67 million cast their ballots, a percentage of 46.42 per cent. The number of invalid votes was more than 400,000.
The run-off will be between Islamist representative Mohamed Mursi who collected 24.8 per cent of the votes and a representative of the old guard Ahmed Shafik who came in second place with 23.9 per cent.
In France's recent presidential election, voter turnout was 71.9 per cent, whereas in the 2008 US presidential elections, 56.8 per cent of Americans cast their ballots. Voter turnout in Italy's general elections in 2009 stood at 62.5 per cent and Germany's voter turnout in 2009 was estimated at 71.2 per cent.
To some experts, Egypt's voter turnout was considered high, especially when comparing the percentage of voters' participation with those abroad. According to Adel Abdel-Ghaffar, a professor of public opinion at Cairo University's Faculty of Mass Communication, the percentage of participation was expected to be as high as 70 per cent. Still, Ghaffar stressed, the 46 per cent of participation in itself was not low. "When comparing the Egyptian community with other international societies Egypt had a high percentage of voting, sometimes surpassing other foreign communities," Abdel-Ghaffar argued. Long queues were formed outside 13,000 polling stations across the country. "Voter turnout was enormous and more than expected," Abdel-Ghaffar said.
Turnout on the second day was generally weaker than the first day, where long queues were formed outside polling stations for more than an hour before they opened at 8am. The government gave employees the second day off to augment voter turnout. According to reporters, turnout seemed to be high in the country's urban areas whereas in rural areas the percentage of voters was less.
Several newspapers reported that most residents of two villages in Upper Egypt boycotted the elections after protesting for months at shortages of bread and butane gas.
Farouk Sultan, head of the Presidential Elections Commission (PEC), told the press that on both election days there were almost no reports of violence at polling stations.
Generally, the first round of Egypt's presidential election attracted a considerably lower turnout of voters unlike what was predicted, given that the elections were the first democratic presidential elections in Egypt. Political analyst Hassan Nafaa, professor of political science at Cairo University, believes the low turnout, though unexpected, was justified. "Many of those who did not cast their ballots believe that the elections were taking place in a difficult political atmosphere that will not allow the rise of a leading figure capable of rescuing the country from its current crisis," Nafaa said.
Nafaa said choosing among 13 candidates, an abnormally large number, imposed more difficulties and confusion among voters, especially during the last month of campaigning. "With the absence of a constitution, candidates were contesting to lead a government without a clear division of power. They could only present introductory plans to meet campaign promises such as bringing back security within the first 100 days or regaining Egypt's regional position as a leading country," argued Nafaa.
Most of the qualifications of the presidential candidates were as vague as their job descriptions and promises. Many voters resorted to character assessment to be the basis of their choice. According to Gamal Zahran, professor of political science at Port Said University and a former MP, media coverage, especially TV, of candidates' electoral programmes was not enough to persuade the entire nation to go and cast their ballots. "Also, most illiterate voters were unable to name the candidates, so they preferred to stay at home and refrain from voting," Zahran said.
"Experts and political analysts had expected a higher turnout especially when compared to those of last year's parliamentary elections which exceeded 54 per cent," Zahran said. Zahran added that Egyptians have never participated in presidential elections except when in 2005 Mubarak allowed a multi-candidate system replacing yes and no referendums on himself. Mubarak won 87 per cent of the votes (6.3 million voters).
"This reveals that many Egyptians this year were unhappy with either the electoral process or presidential candidates themselves," Zahran added.
Abdel-Ghaffar disagreed with Zahran, saying throughout the world the percentage of participation in parliamentary elections is higher than that of presidential elections. Abdel-Ghaffar believes that the refrain of voters from participating in the elections might be due to either the summer heat or long queues in front of polling stations or the multiplicity of candidates.
At the same time, most voters who boycotted the presidential elections believed they are illegitimate. "They claimed that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] might forge the final results in favour of the SCAF's alleged candidate Shafik," Nafaa said.
Millions of voters who cast their ballots considered Egypt's first presidential elections was gained by the revolution and were proud that the whole process took place peacefully and was well organised. Those who did not vote have not yet, according to Nafaa, overcome their lack of trust in the process itself as well as in the contestants.
"Therefore, and regardless of who will be the next president, they have to accept the result as long as they did not participate in changing it," Nafaa said, hoping that voter turnout in the run-off on 16-17 June will be higher than that of the first round.