How Bad Election Law Could Crash Egypt's Revolution

The country's intricate new rules for voting pose a real risk for its transition to democracy

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Members of the military try to stop clashes between demonstrators and loyalists of the ruling military council in Abbasiya district in Cairo / Reuters

When it comes to revolutions, election law reform is just not as exciting as, say, toppling a brutal dictator through non-violent protest; nor is the threat of bad election law reform quite as scary as, for example, the threat of a military junta taking that dictator's place. But one of the more auspicious lessons from the past two centuries of democratic revolutions is that the esoteric details of how a country holds its first legitimate election can sometimes be just as important, and just as dangerous, as, for example, whether that country's military decides to turn its guns on a pro-democracy movement, as it is doing now in Syria, or to stand them down, as it did in Egypt. That latter country might have gotten closer to democracy than nearly any other Arab state so far, but the new election rules it released this week could undo it all.

The Democracy ReportThe revamped electoral laws, announced Thursday by Egypt's interim (maybe!) military government, are a confusing mish-mash of a few different electoral systems. They include a whole new delineation of 184 districts, voters in which will choose between, depending on the district, some combination of individual candidates and party lists. The rules, designed for the upcoming November elections, which will set the standard for Egyptian democracy, repeat what may be the biggest mistake that nascent democracies make: something called "first past the post." It's the system we use in the U.S., where every election has a list of candidates, and the candidate who gets the most votes in that particular election wins the seat. Why is that so bad? It's complicated, but the video below provides a compelling and surprisingly entertaining (it uses jungle animals) explanation:

Actually, it's much worse than that. The video above has "cheetah" winning the national election with only 20 percent, the most of the seven candidates. The other 80 percent of the electorate that did not support "cheetah" glumly accepts the results. But, often, that's not what happens. In a country with little tradition of democracy and widespread anxiety about whether a democratic system is really right for them, watching a minority take power can often lead people to reject the idea of democracy or to consider the new government illegitimate.

Or worse. The country that no one in Egypt wants to talk about right now is Algeria. In 1991, Algeria's government, bowing to outside pressure and internal pro-democracy activism (sound familiar?), held the country's first-ever real democratic elections. They set the system as first past the post: voters in each district chose between a list of parties, and the party that got the most votes in that district would represent it in the parliament. But because the democratic system was so new, there were dozens of political parties, some with overlapping ideologies, few very experienced in campaigning. Though Algerian society was not particularly Islamist for an Arab state, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an Islamist party, was able to use its access to preexisting religious institutions to campaign and organize. On election day, Algeria's many liberals and socialists and centrists split their votes among the many liberal, socialist, and centrist parties. The FIS swept elections, winning districts with often less than a quarter of its votes. The Islamist party was poised to dominate the government, though most people had voted against it. The Algerian military, which is staunchly secular and socialist, cancelled the elections and staged a coup. The civil war this started lasted a decade and killed a quarter of a million Algerians.

We probably don't have to worry about Egypt falling into civil war if the election produces nationally unpalatable results. More likely, the military leadership would refuse to cede power and marginalize democratic institutions into the irrelevant rubber-stampers they were under Hosni Mubarak. Even if they did honor the results, any election conducted under these newly announced rules would be unlikely to produce a government that really represented Egypt. As I've written, the Muslim Brotherhood is actually not very popular in Egypt. But they're the least unpopular of Egypt's zillion or so political parties. They're only showing about 15 to 20 percent national approval, but that might be enough to win many Egyptian districts, where dozens of political parties, none of them very organized, are running.

There are many other democratic systems that get around the problems of first past the post. Perhaps the most successful is something called "party-list proportional representation," used by Turkey, Israel, Brazil, and much of Europe. Everyone votes for a party, and each party gets seats in parliament proportional to their take in the national vote. A party that wins 10 percent of the national vote, for example, gets to hold 10 percent of the seats in parliament. This system isn't as obvious as first past the post, and it can seem a little counter-intuitive (voters don't select individual candidates, leaving that to the party), but the end result is usually a government that more closely reflects the will of the people.

To compare the two systems, let's game out how they might work in Egypt. We'll assume that the most recent polling is accurate: the Muslim Brotherhood will win 15 percent of the vote, Mubarak's old National Democratic Party will win 10 percent, and the rest will be split among a few dozen nascent political parties, which range from Western-style secular liberals to right-wing orthodox Salafist Islamists.

In a pure first past the post system (not quite what Egypt is currently planning, but a rough approximation), the Muslim Brotherhood will eek out a tiny majority in most of the country's districts, where it will win about 15 percent of the vote. The National Democratic Party will also win a decent share of seats, profiting from name recognition. A few districts in the wealthier parts of Cairo or Alexandria might elect one of the new liberal parties. But, in most districts, liberal and/or secular votes get split between competing liberal-secular parties, meaning most of them lose. The end result will be a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government, with factions of the old regime, in a country that doesn't want to be led by either. Many of the activists who led the revolution become disenchanted with democracy and don't bother to protest if the military holds on to some of its newfound power.

Now what's look at what might happen in a European-style party-list proportional representation system. The Muslim Brotherhood wins about 15 percent of the national vote, the National Democratic Party 10 percent; the other 75 percent of the vote is split about evenly between 10 or so new parties, some of which are liberal-secular, some of which are socialist, and some of which are Salafist. In the new government, liberal-secular parties and socialist parties band together with moderates from the Muslim Brotherhood to form a ruling coalition, which reflects the will and desire of a majority of Egyptian voters.

Or there's the Algerian model. If Egypt is going to make the smart choice, the U.S. and other Western governments that lobbied so hard for Mubarak's departure might want to consider applying the same pressure now on the Egyptian military leadership. Designing a good electoral system might not be the most exciting part of a democratic revolution, but it's by far one of the most important -- and riskiest.