Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The book of lists: unraveling the mystery of Egypt's emerging electoral system

Dear readers

I am, by training, an expert in public policy.  I like to think of myself as a comparative political scientist. Upon this basis,  I will attempt to unravel the mysteries of Egypt's emerging electoral systems for you.

The most important idea, in my opinion, is that different forms of electoral systems have different outcomes for emerging democracies. (Barkan, Densham, Rushton, 2006) In general, countries tend to choose between "first past the post systems" (plurality) and proportional representation systems. The United States has a first past the post system. Such systems make it hard for third parties to run effectively. (Norris, 1997) Mixed systems, such as those adopted by Ecuador, Hungary, Russia and Taiwan aim to combine the best of proportional and majoritarian systems. (Norris, 1997)

Eastern Europe and Southern Africa engaged in discussion regarding the likely impacts and tradeoffs of alternative electoral systems before they chose a system. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, Egypt's leadership has not engaged in such a discussion. Rather, the decisions have been made in closed consultations between the Egyptian military and any political participants which the SCAF has chosen to converse with.

Here is a very quick summary of the systems available based on Norris.  For more detail, please look up the articles below. Plurality systems are used for election in the UK, Canada, India, and the US. Plurality systems aim to create a majority. This system penalizes minor parties. It is winner take all and the focus is on effective governance, not representation of minority views. Candidates need a simple plurality to be elected.

Party list systems are used in South Africa, Europe, and Brazil, to name a few countries. "Proportional systems focus on the inclusion of minority voices."  (Norris, 1997: 303) Open party lists (Norway, Finland, Italy) mean that voters can express preferences for particular candidates within the list. Closed party lists mean that voters can only select the party (Israel, Portugal, Spain, Germany). The ranking of the candidates is determined by the political party. Where you are located on the list, determines your chances of getting elected. The additional member system used in Germany combines single-member, and party list constituencies.

Carles Boix's work is relevant to the Egyptian case. He argues that any current government shapes the electoral rules to its advantage. (Boix, 1999) He observes that in an era of limited suffrage, plurality rule was used broadly in Europe. After the turn of the century, most European countries embraced proportional representation.  It is my assessment that Egypt, according to Boix's typology, is currently operating under conditions of very high uncertainty regarding the structure of the electoral arena. Under such conditions, Boix predicts that the ruling elite will select a system most likely to minimize risks. This, he states is a mixed or pure PR system. Interesting, because the SCAF has in fact selected a mixed PR system.

Boix notes that if parties are collections of local notables, then there may be an incentive to embrace single-member districts. These structures, he argues, strengthen local ties and patronage politics. This is in fact what is occurring in Egypt, with the selection of the one third single member independent districts. Under Mubarak, all candidates ran as individuals in a first past the post system. The goal of that system was to ensure solid majorities for the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). 

Based on the SCAF's most recent ruling, two thirds of constituencies will be allocated according to a closed proportional list-based system, and one third according to the single-winner (first past the post) system. Further, the SCAF has reduced the number of seats in the People's Assembly from 508 to 498.

As I mentioned in a previous post, having one third of seats be elected through a  single-winner system makes electoral districts bigger. If 1/3 of the candidates are under a single-winner system, then the 80 million people of Egypt will elect 166 people as individual candidates. That means that the electoral districts will be divided among 166 candidates. The electoral districts will be larger, which will favor established, wealthy, well-known candidates, (NDP and MB) and disadvantage candidates from new parties.

Add to this a special Egyptian twist. There is a workers and farmers requirement. A certain percentage of people in parliament must be "workers" or "farmers." This sounds good in theory, but in practice, it is prone to corruption. To be named a "worker" or a "farmer" you have to get a certificate which acknowledges you as such from the Egyptian government. This is essentially a back door way of favoring local notables, people like the sherif, or omda, or people from wealthy families.

No system is perfect. As noted above, a first past the post system generally penalizes small parties. However, PR also has its disadvantages. For example, South Africa chose PR to accommodate parties representing racial minorities. (Barkan et. al, 2006) PR systems enhance the power of party leaders at the expense of back benchers and the rank and file. It may reduce opportunities for face to face dialogue and linkages between legislators and citizens, thereby potentially reducing accountability. In other words, citizens residing in a given area are unable to hold a specific MP accountable to their community.

 Finally, none of these systems will necessarily protect the rights of women. A closed PR system may help get women elected, depending on where the parties place women on the lists. If they are at the bottom of the list, for example, they will not get elected.  For this reason, some countries such as Uganda and Rwanda, have put in place requirements that a certain percentage of seats in parliament be reserved for women. A future essay will discuss the pros and cons of each electoral system.

Ames, B. (1995) Electoral Strategy under Open-List Proportional Representation," American Journal of Political Science, 39 (2): 406-433.

Barkan, J.D. (2006) "Designing Better Electoral Systems for Emerging Democracies," American Journal of Political Science, 50 (4): 926-939.
Blais, A., Dobrzynska, A. and Indridason, I.  (2005), "To Adopt or Not to Adopt Proportional Representation: The Politics of Institutional Choice.", 35(1): 182-190.
Boix, C. (1999) "Setting the Rules of the Game; The Choice of Electoral Systems in Advanced Democracies," The American Political Science Review, 93 (3): 609-624.
Fick, G. (1999), "The Gender-Sensitive Checklist for Free and Fair Elections," Agenda, (40): 66-74.
Norris, P. (1997) Choosing Electoral Systems: Proportional, Majoritarian and Mixed Systems. International Political Science Review, 18 (3): 297-312.

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