Egyptian elections in comparative perspective

How do the elections in Egypt compare to post-communist elections in the former Soviet Union?

egypt election
Islamists won about two-thirds of the vote in the first round of parliamentary elections in Egypt [Reuters]

One of the ways to get a handle on the current Egyptian elections is to try to compare them to the first set of post-communist elections. Some similarities are immediately apparent: Turnout is high. The forces of the “Old Regime” are apparently doing badly. But perhaps more illustrative, however, are the following differences:

First, the early post-communist elections were essentially dichotomous affairs: They were contested between forces supportive of the “Old Regime” (i.e., communist successor parties) and forces that wanted to lead to a transition to a more market based economic and a liberal-democrat political system, which I have elsewhere labelled “New Regime” parties. In Egypt, however, the contest appears to be trichotomous: between the Old Regime, liberal parties and Islamist parties.

 Egyptians return to polls for run-off vote

Second, while the first post-communist elections were often fought between unified “umbrella movements” of opposition forces (that later splintered after winning the first election) and the party of the old regime, in Egypt the opposition movements splintered before the first election. This is going to have a number of important effects. For the liberals, it appears that they are going to enter the parliament in a very weak state. But even the Islamists, who according to the New York Times received almost two-thirds of the vote in the first round of balloting, will not have a single majority party in the parliament.

Third, Egypt is employing a somewhat bizarre staggered electoral system, where different parts of the country vote in different periods of time. This presents an interesting opportunity for the liberals. In Poland, for example, when the New Regime forces splintered into lots of different parties to – disastrously – contest the 1993 parliamentary elections, they had to wait four years to try a different electoral strategy, and voters had to wait 4 years to deal with the fact that many of them had wasted their votes by voting for parties that did not get into the parliament. In Egypt, however, it is possible that these lessons could be applied as early as the next round of voting. The Washington Post presents some anecdotal evidence that this may already be occurring:

Liberal voters who will go to the polls in the next stages of voting said the worrying results were prompting them to rethink their choices. The biggest failing of liberal forces is that they are divided across dozens of parties. Some people said they would gravitate toward the strongest-performing liberal and leftist coalition, the Egyptian Bloc, to counter the Islamists’ success.

Should this kind of learning be documented more systematically, it would turn out to be very interesting, and indeed might have implications for how we think about designing initial elections in new regimes.

Finally, in the original post-communist elections splinter parties that left the ex-communist parties because they were not “extreme” enough tended to perform quite badly in the first round of elections. While the situation is not exactly analogous in Egypt, it is very interesting that the more extreme Islamist Salafist al-Nour party appears to be polling so well.

Why might this be the case? My guess is that as the Muslim Brotherhood has tried to portray itself as more centrist – i.e. compatible with democracy, and amenable to continuing to work with the West – there is a sizeable community of Egyptian voters who really do desire a hardline Islamic government. This is actually fairly consistent with Downsian models of politics: As parties move to the centre to try to pick up more voters, they leave themselves open to challengers on the extreme. The Muslim Brotherhood may have thought its most important challenge was to pick off voters from potential liberal parties, but the results in some ways suggest that they would have been better off protecting their Islamist flank.

Of course, the Muslim Brotherhood may also have been trying to play to another audience – including, perhaps most crucially, the military – in moving to the centre. But regardless of the cause, it means that should the Muslim Brotherhood take control of the government – which seems likely at this point – then from the start it is going to have be worried about not being “extremist enough” in pursuit of Islamist goals, much more so than post-Communist parties that returned to power in the early 1990s in countries like Poland, Hungary and Lithuania.

Why is all this important? Beyond the obvious questions of who is going to dominate the first Egyptian parliament and government, these factors have implications for how we think politics may develop in Egypt in the future. As my own research has demonstrated, “New Regime” parties in post-communist countries tended to perform badly where the economy performed badly, which in part explains the return of ex-Communist parties to power in many post-communist countries in the second round of elections.

Assuming that Egypt is in for a rough time economically once this political transition gets resolved, the incredibly interesting question is what effect this will have on the popularity of the different political forces. Will the Islamist parties play the role of the post-communist “New Regime” parties, essentially taking ownership of the economy once they come to power? Or will the liberal parties – like the actual liberal “New Regime” parties in post-communist countries – bear the brunt of an electorate discouraged about the state of the economy because of their association with market reforms? Or is it possible that if the military continues to meddle in politics “Old Regime” forces will be blamed for poor economic conditions out of a belief that the military is really still calling the shots?

Similarly, who benefits if the economy deteriorates under an Islamist watch? Old Regime forces linked to the military? Liberals, because of their role in the opposition and perceived “technocratic” competence? Or the Islamists, who – much like ex-communist parties – may be perceived to be more concerned about the fate of the poor? Finally, how might this all be affected by a situation in which – as Tony Karon at Time Magazine suggests might be possible – the Muslim Brotherhood goes into a coalition with the some of the liberal secular parties instead of the other, more conservative, Islamist party?

Of course, one other important difference between Egypt and most post-communist countries is that we were pretty confident then that whatever the results of the initial elections, the military would not step in and either falsify or annul the results. It still remains to be seen whether this is the case in Egypt.

Joshua A. Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University, a National Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and a co-author of the award winning politics and policy blog The Monkey Cage, where an earlier version of this article was posted. 

Follow him on Twitter: @j_a_tucker

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.