Boycott bind: Opposition parties grapple with election strategies

In an anticipated move, the National Salvation Front (NSF), the biggest opposition bloc in Egypt, decided Tuesday to boycott the House of Representatives elections scheduled to start on 22 April, saying the “guarantees for fair elections did not exist.”

In a news conference, held by the front after meeting to examine the matter, Sameh Ashour, NSF member and head of the Lawyers Syndicate, said: “We will not run elections without a law that ensures the integrity of the electoral process, a Cabinet that applies the law and gets the trust of people, a true independent judiciary, lifting the blockade on the canal cities, and realizing the hopes of the nation and social justice.”

The NSF’s reasons for the boycott were not surprising, given the tense general political and social mood of the country. Acknowledging the ongoing civil disobedience movements in the Suez Canal and Delta cities, specifically Port Said and Daqahliya, the front said people were not yet ready for the most important elections since the uprising began.

The House of Representatives will be the first elected body under the newly ratified Constitution, which outlines a semi-presidential system. According to the Constitution, a majority in Parliament should approve the president’s choice of prime minister.

It is unclear, however, whether the boycott decision came as a response to President Mohamed Morsy’s disregard for the opposition’s demand to form a neutral cabinet to oversee elections, or whether opponents fear facing Islamists through the polls.

The opposition also has reservations about the parliamentary elections law and the distribution of constituencies.

But there are signs inside some political parties within the NSF that not everybody is satisfied with the boycott calls. Some prefer to contest the race.

Such a division in the ranks is problematic for party leaders seeking to satisfy their subordinates and remain committed to the front’s positions.

Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies expert Hassan Abu Taleb argues that “the opposition will either have to contest the elections, thus recognizing the highly divisive new Constitution; abandon its demands and give political legitimacy to these elections, or boycott and lose an opportunity to submit alternative political and economic reform programs that may allay the public’s anger.”

But its next step goes beyond elections, he says.

“The most important thing is that the opposition, specifically the NSF, sticks to one position and thinks of the next political step to engage with the masses, because opposition is not only [through] ballot boxes,” Abu Taleb adds.

Reasons for boycotting

While Islamists, specifically the FJP, see the opposition’s boycott as a means to blemish the electoral process, boycotters argue otherwise, pointing to the political climate and the regime’s actions.

Socialist Popular Alliance Party leader Akram Ismail believes the general political atmosphere is not conducive for elections.

“Boycott does not mean escape because the data we have doesn’t encourage our participation in any electoral race. The street is crowded and soon the Cabinet will apply austerity policies, so what is the use of contesting elections in the meantime?” he asks.

The law regulating the elections, the Cabinet and state institutions that would monitor the electoral process are under Morsy’s control, he points out.

“It’s only natural that the election results will be stacked in his favor,” says Ismail. “So what would we do in the next parliament?”

The solution now, he says, is to return and join the revolution and masses in the street, “because the opposition has got a long way to go in order to create alternative economic and social reform platforms to contest elections.”

A leader from the liberal Dostour Party who asked not to be named says NSF members believe the bloc has no opportunity to garner a large number of seats in parliament, and therefore prefers to take the side of the angry people in the street.

On the other hand, some analysts believe the bloc’s boycott decision will not garner public support, while contesting the elections could mean opposition forces would be forced to abandon closed-room political disagreements, and address the street and citizens’ needs.

Political commentator Yasser Olwey argues in an opinion piece published Tuesday in the privately run Al-Shorouk daily that taking part in elections would force the opposition to shift from confronting the regime within the limits of what he calls the “external skin of the community” to linking their demands for constitutional amendments, as well as conditions for national dialogue to the public’s demands for social justice and security.

“To participate in the elections may be a remedy for the elitist opposition, which has been limited to a nip-and-tuck affair with the regime in the manner separate to the priorities of popular mobilization, and may simultaneously be a prelude to rehabilitate the opposition’s popularity by restoring the confidence of citizens in the ballot box,” Olwey says.

The recent, unprecedented rise in the rate of public mobility clearly coincided with public reluctance to participate in the polls, he argues, as shown by the turnout in December’s constitutional referendum, when nearly 30 percent of eligible voters took part — “a small percentage compared to that of the presidential and parliamentary elections conducted in the wake of the January revolution.”

Expected rifts?

While it seems the NSF’s decision to boycott the elections is final, the extent of the commitment by the front’s 13 political parties to the decision is less clear.

Tamer al-Maihy, member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party political bureau, says the final decision of the party has not officially been released. The party is a member of the NSF coalition.

“The party approved of the front’s decision, but the supreme body had to officially inform the political bureau and the rest of the party’s members in order to discuss the decision and see whether it aligns with the party’s interests, especially since internal debates are ongoing and opinions are still divided,” Maihy says.

Echoing Maihy’s words, the Dostour Party leader says the party is witnessing differences on whether to participate in the elections.

“Each party has its own circumstances, so enforcing the boycott could widen differences inside parties. For example, we are a new party that appeared a few months ago,” he says. “The next elections will therefore be an indicator of the party’s popularity, as, through it, we would be able to evaluate our performance, outside of the front.”

Details of the divisions between NSF leaders on whether to boycott or contest on a unified list or multiple lists have been widely publicized in the press.

There have also been reports on differences between youth members of the Popular Current, headed by former presidential hopeful Hamdeen Sabbahi, and members of the Congress Party, headed by former presidential hopeful Amr Moussa. Reasons for the disagreement have been attributed to Moussa being one of the symbols of the Hosni Mubarak regime, which Popular Current youth consider a betrayal of the revolution.

“The problem of the front is that it includes different people with differing positions. The parties have many different ideologies,” Maihy says. “In addition, there are public figures that do not belong to a certain political movement.”

Differences abound, he says, because there are no clear mechanisms or regulations to vote on front decisions.

“If a mechanism for the front’s work has not been developed to determine its future plans after boycotting elections, and decide on how to communicate with people better and more widely, the front will surely not continue,” Maihy asserts.

While it may be difficult to overlook these internal rifts, the NSF’s calls for a boycott, coupled with ongoing public discontent, could lead to a broader debate on the merits of boycotting within the current political climate.

This article was translated from Arabic by Mai Mohsen.

This piece appears in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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