Egyptian opposition supporters spurn poll

Secular Wafd party and Muslim Brotherhood refuse to take part in parliamentary run-off after alleging fraud in first round of voting.

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CAIRO // A trickle of Egyptians came out to vote in a parliamentary run-off yesterday in which the ruling party was often the only contestant.

The vote for about half the seats in the People's Assembly, the lower and more powerful house of parliament, marked the second and final part to an electoral process that has been widely criticised by independent monitors and analysts for suspected fraud.

The two major opposition parties in Egypt, the secular Wafd party and the Muslim Brotherhood, both refused to take part in the run-off after alleging fraud in last Sunday's first round of voting, although their candidates' names remained printed on ballots and some candidates defied party leaders to campaign yesterday.

Across Egypt, only five per cent of eligible voters showed up to cast a ballot, estimated Magdy Abdulhamid, the co-ordinator of the Independent Coalition to Monitor Elections, an umbrella group of non-governmental organisations that fielded 1,000 volunteers at the polls and kept its own statistics. He and other vote monitors put last Sunday's turnout at around 10 per cent, far less than the official participation rate of just under 35 per cent offered by the High Elections Commission.

The election comes at a key time for Egypt. The country's 81-year-old president, Hosni Mubarak, will have to decide whether to cede power to a successor next year.

Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and an expert of Egyptian politics, said blatant electoral manipulation by Mr Mubarak's bloc, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), will result in "a parliament here with virtually no opposition to speak of".

Both NDP supporters and opponents have forecasted the party will win as much as 95 per cent of seats in the 518-member Assembly.

"What could have been a resounding victory for the NDP has instead turned into an embarrassing debacle, one that calls into question the regime's judgment and political instincts at such a critical time in Egypt's history," Mr Hamid said.

"This election marks the first time in recent memory that the NDP made such a strategic blunder, and such an obvious one."

The government-appointed High Elections Commission, which says it is fully independent, admitted some irregularities but denied allegations of widespread fraud last week.

"The elections as a whole were conducted properly and the results announced earlier reflected the will of the Egyptian electorate," the commission said in a statement on Friday.

But analysts and independent vote monitors said concern over the looming presidential vote drove an aggressive strategy by the NDP and government security forces that all but shut out the opposition by stuffing ballot boxes and intimidating opposition voters and supporters.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the banned Islamist opposition group, is on track to lose all of its 88 seats in the Assembly after failing to win a single seat last Sunday and refusing to take part yesterday. Two Wafd party candidates who won last Sunday will either resign their seats or face expulsion from the party, said Abdulaziz el Nahass, a member of the Wafd party's higher office.

In addition, six of nine candidates from the Wafd party who failed to observe the boycott yesterday are also likely to be expelled, Mr el Nahass said.

The boycotts led to a number of races yesterday in which NDP candidates were the only ones left campaigning.

In Bulaq al Dakrour, a working-class district within the city of Giza, few of those interviewed yesterday in cafes and shops had any plans to vote or cared much about the result at the polls.

Two NDP candidates were vying for one of the district's two seats, while the other seat was contested by an NDP member and an ex-NDP member who ran as an independent but has allied himself to the party. Candidates from other parties, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, failed to garner enough votes in last Sunday's vote to advance.

"It's not worth the trouble of trying to enter and get past the security men at the gate," said Aymad Abu Dahab, who sat in a coffee shop less than 200 metres away from a polling station. "They come here and campaign and then do nothing."

Mohammed Fariq Ali and about a dozen friends, all recent graduates of Cairo University, were gathered at a coffee shop on the other side of the district and said they were waiting to vote until the late afternoon, when they hoped to be paid between 150 and 200 Egyptian pounds (Dh95-127) to mark their ballots for the highest bidder.

"We are sitting here drinking tea for now," he said. "We'll wait until 4pm to go down there."