THE SURPRISE would be if Hosni Mubarak’s party did not sweep the board in Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Egypt against the relatively toothless People’s Assembly ( Magles al-Shaab). The poll should see the president’s National Democratic Party (NDP) romp to another absolute majority, a scene-setter for the more important presidential elections next year.
Of particular interest will be the performance of some 130 “independent” candidates endorsed by the banned Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. It surprised Mubarak by taking a fifth of the seats in the 2005 election but, intimidation and vote-rigging by the NDP notwithstanding, the government has copperfastened the result by amending the constitution, banning the party, and jailing 1,000 of its supporters in the run-up to the poll.
The reform of the constitution has also created an impossibly high nomination hurdle for presidential candidates – the backing of 250 lawmakers from the NDP-dominated houses of parliament and local councils – ensuring that the NDP’s nominee is almost certain to be unopposed. Whether that is the 82-year-old Mubarak, in power since 1981, or his son Gamal (47), head of the NDP’s policy-making committee, appears to be the only issue. When backers of Gamal Mubarak tried to draft him a few weeks ago, a party spokesman broke a previous silence to announce that the frail president intends to stand for re-election.
The new rules effectively make it impossible for Independents, such as former UN nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei, to garner enough signatures to participate. He has said he might run for president if the constitution is amended but his campaign for change has fizzled out and he has ruled out joining an existing party. Suggestions by human rights NGOs and the US, the country’s key ally, that the elections could do with some independent monitoring have been dismissed by the government as an attack on its sovereignty.
The NDP hopes the elections will give legitimacy of sorts to an austerity plan seen as key to reducing the country’s 8 per cent budget deficit and pushing up growth to the 7 per cent level it needs just to absorb new entrants to the labour force. The plan, criticised as an attack on the poor, includes a property tax, cuts in subsidies on petrol and butane for cooking fuel which eat up about 25 per cent of the state budget, and VAT increases. However, the mandate of a flawed election is unlikely to provide cover and the country could see a repeat of the violent food riots of 2008.