|Has the NDP's strategy served to further alienate voters? [EPA]
Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) surprised many observers earlier this month, when it announced that it had chosen approximately 800 of its members to compete for the 508 seats in the lower house of parliament in upcoming legislative elections.
It is a decision that means more than 50 per cent of NDP candidates will be competing against members of their own party.
"The NDP is making history," wrote Waheed Abd El-Majeed in the independent daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.
"The history of political parties around the world does not know a party that had more than one candidate competing over the same seat in the same election .... What is happening means that the NDP is running against itself."
The move may also reflect the NDP's failure to unite competing forces within the party ahead of the crucial vote that could set the political scene for a presidential election next summer.
The NDP, which has been in power since its inception in 1978, is widely seen as a loose political body, lacking in unity and ideological cohesion, which Egyptians join not out of support for its policies or ideological affiliation but because they want to enjoy the benefits that come from being close to the ruling elite.
"The party of the government ... is capable of attracting hundreds of thousands of fake members who join it for selfish interests or political immunity," wrote Amr al-Shobaki in Al-Masry Al-Youm. "This is what happened to the NDP, which opened up to diverse members from all political colours to the extent that it became unable to meet the demands of its thousands of members seeking their own selfish interests.
"Instead of educating them politically and teaching them about the values of civil state, the party did nothing. It left its millions of members in a state of chaos and self-contradiction."
In the last two parliamentary elections hundreds of NDP members suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of former colleagues who had left the party after failing to win its nomination. Choosing to run as independents, they then re-joined the NDP after successfully defeating their former colleagues at the polls.
In the 2005 legislative elections, 166 former NDP members ran and won as independents and then re-joined the party, compared to the 145 NDP candidates who were elected. In the 2000 elections, the gap was wider still - 170 NDP nominated candidates were elected, compared to 218 who ran as independents.
An identity crisis
This phenomenon has left a deep scar on the image of NDP, revealing, according to Abd El-Majeed, that "the party that is supposed to lead the country is incapable of leading itself".
"The NDP is not a party whose members agree on common principles and goals, as we expect from parties around the world," he noted. "In contrast, it is a tool in the hands of its members to achieve their own selfish and personal interests."
It is this image that the party has been trying to fight - through its media and political machines - over the past decade.
"In contrast to other parties, the NDP has not known internal divisions," wrote Ali Eldin Hilal, the head of the NDP's media committee, in his recently published book The Egyptian political system: 1981-2010.
"The presence of the head of the state on the top of the party had a decisive role in ending disputes and preventing them from going beyond (normal) limits. Yet, it is expected that opinion differences among NDP members will increase with the rise in party activism. It is also expected that such difference will be reflected in party discussions and debates. But, they will not lead to splits. This is because of the structural flexibility of the party and its internal political culture, which could contain difference within the core principles of the party."
The presence of the president at the head of the party may, as Hilal writes, have prevented leadership disputes or significant splits in the party, but it may also be responsible for the failure of the party to develop a strong sense of identity or mission.
As a result - and under the influence of the so-called new guard, including Hilal and Ahmed Ezz, the influential head of the party's organisational committee, and led by the president's son, Gamal Mubarak - the NDP went through a "review process" in 2000.
The new guard wanted to reflect a new, modern image for the NDP. They opened its executive office to more members, created more decision making bodies and instituted periodical elections as a way of selecting its local and national leaders.
According to Hilal, the NDP held elections in 6,662 local units last year and 64 per cent of those elected were new party executives.
Ahead of this year's parliamentary elections, the party's organisational committee organised, for the first time, a three-level process to select party nominees. This selection process included a public vote by the party's 2.5 million members, which was intended to ensure that the will of party members was reflected in the nominations and to end the phenomenon of party defectors running as independents.
To guarantee that only those selected by the party would be able to run, the NDP did not submit its list of candidates to the electoral commission until November 7, the last day of the registration period.
Despite this, when the party announced that it was nominating approximately 800 candidates from the 4,000 initial contenders, it became clear that it would be unable to contain its competing forces.
Many of those excluded protested. Some said they would cancel their party memberships, while others announced that they would support the opposition in the upcoming vote.
Elections without politics
Some analysts have branded the NDP's decision to field candidates against each other as the latest manifestation of the identity crisis of an "obese" party that is incapable of controlling its membership. But others have noted that the party is only fielding more than one candidate in less important districts where there is no senior NDP candidate or serious opposition contender running.
Yasser Hassan, a senior member of al-Wafd party, Egypt's main liberal opposition party, told the London-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper that the party is running with more than one candidate in some districts to "avoid the failures of the 2005 parliament elections when party candidates won only 33 per cent of the parliament seats. In contrast, independent, opposition and Muslim Brotherhood candidates won 67 per cent of the seats. Then, the party was forced to include the independents".
Hassan does not believe this policy will damage the party's campaign. "The leaders of the ruling party support their candidates in two stages. First, they announce several candidates running for the same seat. At a later stage and shortly before election day the party will choose one candidate from all the contenders and support him based on his popularity inside his district."
Safwat al-Sahrif, the general secretary of the NDP, has also justified the decision, telling the party's newspaper Al-Watani Al-Youm: "The party introduced more than one candidate in some districts ... to give the voters the opportunity to express their will in choosing their representative."
An anonymous senior NDP leader told the London-based al-Hayat newspaper that "having several candidates run for the same seat is a way to gain voters' support through offering them more than one choice to select from .... We also thought that we should avoid more internal divisions and the need to pressure winning independent candidates to join the party after the elections in order to secure [a] ... majority".
But, the heated debate over the NDP's election strategy may only have served to further alienate Egyptians and to deepen their mistrust of the political process.
"Citizens, in any election around the world, listen to party programmes and compare ... the approaches and performances of the candidates. But, in Egypt you could only hear about the protests organised by candidates against the electoral commission, which has refused their candidacy. You could only hear about the NDP's internal election process and those the party refused to nominate," laments al-Shobaki.
"You could see bullies not voters ... An election without voters will only mean more chaos, violence and vote rigging .... It is sad to see elections without politics."