IPD Workshop | Egypt-Indonesia Dialogue on Democratic Transition
Cairo | 25 July 2011
The second meeting in the IPD “Egypt-Indonesia Dialogue on Democratic Transition” took place in Cairo on 25 July 2011. Discussion focused on upcoming elections in Egypt, with comparative perspectives and lessons learned offered by speakers from Indonesia. The workshop was attended by a small group of Egyptian participants largely drawn from political parties and the media, together with four visitors from Indonesia.
Highlights of the dialogue
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Discussion was lively and focused on technical issues relating to the upcoming elections. The overall tone was summed up in a sobering assessment offered by one Egyptian participant. She mentioned that there had been a change in mood in Egypt since the first “Egypt-Indonesia Dialogue on Democratic Transition” workshop in Indonesia in May. Whereas previously “everyone” was for the revolution, she suggested that now people are divided, adding that the transition period seems almost “too tough” given the enormous challenges still lying ahead and renewed violence in Cairo that broke out less than 48 hours before the workshop. Indonesian commentators replied more than once that, in Indonesia’s experience, reform takes time and that Indonesia is only now entering a “second wave” of reform that will likely define the rest of this decade.
Designing and implementing election laws
Egyptian participants identified numerous problems and challenges in key election legislation that is clouding parliamentary elections —referred to as the most important in Egypt’s history— that are only months away.
The electoral system. This was discussed at length, given the complexity and possible confusion of the electoral system that has recently been decided upon. The system is to be 50% proportional and 50% majoritarian, with allowance for independent candidates. Concerns ranged from how confusing the system is, to the “lost votes” inherent in majoritarian systems, to the fact that remnants of the old regime —explicitly banned from political competition for five years— could co-opt independent candidacies through money, tribal connections and extended family. There was much discussion about how to “deal with” remnants of the former regime, as was discussed in the first workshop held in Jakarta in May.
Many Egyptian participants were in favour of closed party lists to guard against inclusion of former members of the now banned National Democratic Party (NDP) of former President Mubarak. While the push in recent years in Indonesia has been to open up party lists, it was noted that open lists have only aggravated vote buying and have not diminished the overarching control of party chairmen. Alternative solutions currently under debate include decreasing district magnitude (i.e. the number of seats contested per district) from a range of 3-12 to 3-6 seats to promote representatives’ attention to constituents rather than simply the party chairman.
Election legislation drafting. Indonesian participants highlighted the similarity in Egypt and Indonesia of numerous often poorly drafted and contradictory laws governing elections. For this reason, some civil society organisations in Indonesia are advocating one Omnibus Election Law. One Indonesian participant cited the familiar quote that elections should consist of “predictable procedures and unpredictable results.” A further lesson offered from ongoing debate on elections legislation in Indonesia is that the design of the electoral system should be used to democratise the political system and promote effective representative government, rather than simply focus on seat allocation.
More practical concerns for the upcoming Egyptian elections focused on confirmation of polling station locations, and the volume of staff and party witnesses permitted at each polling station. One speaker expressed concerns that the laws on party/candidate witnesses were complicated and vague and could create both organisational and political problems. There are also significant challenges presented by adult illiteracy (over 30 percent), both in terms of voter education and voting procedures.
There was lengthy discussion about international observers and overseas voting, since new legislation bans both for upcoming elections. There was broad support among Egyptian and Indonesian participants for the “reassurances” and skills transfer offered by accredited international observers.
Building political parties and party systems
As in Indonesia in 1998-1999, numerous new political parties are being launched in Egypt in anticipation of elections. A judicial committee now determines eligibility, rather than ruling party control of all registrations, as occurred under the Mubarak regime.
Party organisation and platforms. Political parties are facing difficulties in recruiting capable candidates, often finding only former NDP members who are, as one Egyptian speaker put it, “crawling back.” Public suspicion of parties is high, complicating the recruitment of members and the gathering of the 5,000 signatures of support (from at least 10 of Egypt’s 29 provinces/governorates), which is required for party registration. All parties are facing the challenge of promoting internal democracy and clarifying their own internal procedures, as well as decentralisation beyond the traditional political and power center of Cairo. The older parties face an additional challenge of regaining credibility in the public eye. One Indonesian speaker described how Indonesia “regained unity” in the reform era by not excluding Golkar. Golkar’s inclusion did not translate into automatic legislative victories for that party in subsequent elections.
One participant noted that Indonesia continues to face the challenge of developing the public credibility and internal democracy of political parties. An important lesson from Indonesia has been that parties need to be open to community development from the time of their formation. Parties that are closed from the beginning tend to remain closed.
While there are numerous parties in Egypt, emerging party platforms have a similar focus, notably social justice, basic freedoms and rule of law. With undeveloped party organisation and limited time before the elections, there is concern about the disproportionate significance of symbols and slogans, in particular religious symbols and slogans. An Indonesian participant shared Indonesia’s experience with reconciling religion and politics through the Constitution, which clarifies that religion is respected by the state but does not guide the state.
Party finance. One important lesson from Indonesia’s experience is the enormous expenses required to run and manage a viable political party. Parties in Egypt are facing an intense financial challenge: they no longer receive government financial support and private sources of donations are scarce. One Egyptian participant observed that many businessmen “are in prison, under investigation, or have fled”, thus limiting possible sources of funds. Given these challenges, some parties in Egypt have not set an internal ceiling on contributions. It was argued that this could, over time, lead to a monopoly of influence over these parties by one individual or group.
Effective election management bodies
Egypt is facing significant challenges in election administration. There are two different Election Commissions for administering the parliamentary and presidential elections. While voter registration is supposed to be completed by August 2011, voter lists were described by one speaker as a “catastrophe.”
IImportant differences from Indonesia include the fact that the Egyptian Elections Commissions are comprised entirely of judges and that their decisions cannot be challenged in the courts. There is debate in Egypt about merging the separate Commissions into one overarching National Election Commission. There was discussion about Indonesia’s experiences in promoting the independence of the Election Commission, particularly regarding election administration budgets and the hiring and training of professional secretariat staff.
Egyptian participants were particularly interested to learn more about the balance between the independence of the Indonesian Election Commission and parliamentary and executive government oversight. Indonesian speakers elaborated on the importance of the independent selection process for the Election Commission as well as routine performance reporting by the Commission to the parliament and President. The importance of legislating the Election Commission’s professional and non-political functions was also discussed.