13 - 19 April 2000
Issue No. 477
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Opposition rails against electoral reform billsBy Gamal Essam El-Din
As expected, two government-sponsored bills aimed at expanding judicial supervision of parliamentary elections and revising the definitions of "worker" and "farmer" have won the approval of the People's Assembly. The decision, taken on Monday, dropped the curtain on a six-month confrontation between the government and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) on the one hand and opposition political forces on the other over the modification of a 1956 law on the exercise of political rights, described as a prerequisite for political reform and guaranteeing the integrity of next November's parliamentary elections.
The Assembly's move meant the consequent rejection of bills targeting political reform which had been submitted by eight MPs on behalf of various political forces. The two government bills did not go down well with 14 opposition and independent MPs.
Although it began two years earlier, the government-opposition confrontation took a serious turn six months ago following President Hosni Mubarak's speech at the inauguration of a new parliamentary session last November in which he vowed that the "next parliamentary elections will be clean, marked by integrity and held under full judicial supervision at all stages."
Addressing the Assembly Monday morning, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Kamal El-Shazli said the two government bills fulfilled the president's promise completely. But opposition MPs, rejecting El-Shazli's claim, argued that the bills dashed the nation's hopes for boosting democratisation in the new millennium. "The government's amendment of the Political Rights Law goes against President Mubarak's promise that the government would not stand in the way of the opposition's quest for a more balanced form of representation and that nothing would obstruct the search for the most suitable ways of realising this," said Wafdist MP Ayman Nour. The government's bill, he added, falls short of the guarantees demanded by the opposition to ensure the integrity of elections.
In response, El-Shazli said the bills had been the subject of wide-scale discussion at the Shura Council where "almost all political forces are represented. And their representatives had complete freedom to express their views about the new law," El-Shazli added.
El-Shazli and Justice Minister Farouk Seif El-Nasr argued that it was practically impossible to place all polling stations, including major and auxiliary ones, under direct judicial supervision. "The number of members of the judicial authority stands at 9,949. Of these, 5,661 will be available to supervise 42,000 polling stations," El-Shazli said. He added that the government bill will significantly expand judicial supervision by establishing a special judicial supervision committee at every major polling station. "For the first time, this will bring six to eight auxiliary stations under the direct supervision of a member of the judiciary."
El-Shazli cited the example of one major polling station, to which 120 auxiliary stations are attached, to be supervised by 15 members of the judiciary. In previous elections, a polling station, regardless of the number of auxiliary stations attached to it, used to be supervised by just one member of the judiciary. "Isn't this a very progressive democratisation step that guarantees the integrity of parliamentary elections?" El-Shazli asked.
Rejecting the argument, the opposition deputies of the liberal Wafd and leftist Tagammu parties said the government bill had two shortcomings: it should have stated that producing identification cards and signing one's name in what is described as "an attendance book" should be obligatory preconditions for voting. And people who cannot read or write, they added, should be fingerprinted. The two preconditions are necessary if the rigging of elections is to be prevented, they said.
El-Shazli said such demands were "unacceptable" because they cast doubt on the honesty of members of the judiciary in the supervision of balloting. Furthermore, he added, it is very easy to tamper with fingerprints and signatures.
The Wafd, Tagammu and Nasserist deputies also demanded that elections should be spread over several days, instead of one. "This will greatly help security forces tighten their grip on acts of thuggery and ensure that direct and adequate judicial supervision is imposed on balloting," said Wafdist MP Nour.
Justice Minister Seif El-Nasr said staging elections over several days is impossible. "Our studies proved that organising elections at different times will consume nearly one month because vote counting, in this case, will take a very long time," Seif El-Nasr said. But Nour disagreed: "Why shouldn't the government devote one month every five years to organising fair elections? It is a brief period of time but it is important for the nation's freedom and democratisation."
Joining forces with Seif El-Nasr, MP Zakaria Azmi, chief of the presidential staff, urged the opposition to approve the government's bill on the grounds that "what cannot be realised completely should not be abandoned completely."
As for the amendment of the People's Assembly Law, El-Shazli said it was aimed at giving MPs greater flexibility to alter their designations as workers, farmers or fi'at (professionals) in view of the rapidly changing politico-economic conditions in society. He said the current law can be described as unconstitutional because it stipulates that MPs classified as fi'at, workers or farmers before 15 May 1971 cannot change their designations.
For Nour, the amendment filled only one constitutional gap. "The law is still rife with other constitutional defects which should be equally addressed. This is why the Wafd Party calls for a comprehensive amendment of a 30-year-old law to reflect the changing times," said Nour.
Nasserist Sameh Ashour surprised the PA by joining Nour in calling for the complete revision of the terms "worker" and "farmer." The constitution stipulates that one-half of parliamentary seats go to representatives of workers and farmers. But Ashour argued that deputies designated as workers and farmers are by no means true representatives of such categories of people. It would be better, he believed, if the constitutional provision was modified because he said its current application is detrimental to parliamentary performance and representation.