Egyptians greet first “democratic” vote with a yawn

Is Egypt’s revolution, if it ever was one, now officially over?

The results of Saturday’s referendum on amendments to the constitution–seen as a first step towards competitive elections later this year–suggest less than great excitement.

According to Ahram, the turnout was around 41%. Yes, forty one.

Of those who bothered to show up, 77.2% said yes to the amendments.

I wondered how this compared to other referenda on either a new constitution, or amendments to the pre-existing authoritarian one, in past transitions to democracy.

The following is probably missing some key cases. I put it together by perusing my volumes of the Nohlen, et al., data handbooks on Latin America and Africa, as well as some sources on Eastern Europe.*

    Country, Year, Turnout,Yes
    Chile, 1989, 93.9, 91.3
    Ecuador, 1978, 60.2, 58.1
    Malawi, 1993, 97.7, 64.7
    Mali, 1992, 98.2, 99.0
    Uruguay, 1980, 78.6, 42.1

What this means going forward, I do not know. Various reports said the pro-democracy forces were divided over whether the reforms went far enough to be worthy of a yes vote. However, I did not hear anything about an organized boycott. Yet the yes vote was fairly strong out of those who voted, while the turnout shockingly weak for a country supposedly in the process of a mass-instigated transition to democracy.

* I did not find any in Eastern Europe that took place prior to democratic elections. However, Poland’s referendum on its constitution in 1993 had a turnout on par with Egypt’s: 42.9. The yes vote was 53.5. Poland was already democratic by this point, having been governed under the interim Little Constitution.

11 thoughts on “Egyptians greet first “democratic” vote with a yawn

  1. A few examples that might also be relevant. As you know, in 1958, there were referendums in certain French colonies about whether or not to join the French Community. A ‘no’ vote meant independence and Guinea did voted ‘no’. In most cases, the turnout was 90+%. However, in Benin/Dahomey, it was just 53%, though 98% voted ‘yes’. Also, in Burkina Faso/Upper Volta turnout was 74.7% with 99% voting ‘yes’.

    Another case that springs to mind is France in 1946. The turnout at the October referendum to approve the Constitution of the Fourth Republic was just 67.6% (and only 53.2% of those voting voted ‘yes’). Mind you, there was a previous referendum in May and elections in October 1945. So, perhaps voter fatigue had already set in, even if this was the vote that formally approved a new constitution after a period of authoritarianism.

  2. Robert, thanks for adding these French Community examples to the mix. I was not sure if they qualified under the (I’ll admit loosely defined) category I was interested in. But their inclusion adds depth to the comparison.

    I considered including the French referendum of 1946, but decided to concentrate on transitions from established authoritarian governments, rather than from postwar provisional authority.

  3. The Colombian case comes to mind–although granted, it wasn’t a transition case. The December 1990 vote that formally approved the Constituent Assembly and elected it was ~25%.

    Granted, not a pure referendum–and it was the third time that the voters had been asked (the informal 7th ballot in March, and asked again in May during the presidential elections).

    Now the December 1957 vote approving the National Front was a transition election of a sort, but I don’t have the participation figures handy. My guess is that they weren’t stellar.

  4. IIRC Poland held a referendum in the 1980s – still under Communism – that was semi-free enough to embarrass the regime because it failed to pass. The Party had fashioned a rod for its own back by requiring that an absolute majority of all enrolled electors vote “YES”. There were enough abstentions and spoiled votes to push the “YES” plurality below this threshold.

    • 1987 was well before anything resembling a transition to democracy in Poland. So, for that matter, was the election of 1989–until the embarrassment suffered by the Communist Party forced the issue. If there had been a constitutional referendum sometime between 1989 and 1991, or between the first two free elections (the second being 1993), I would have included it.

  5. Has anyone seen a regional disaggregation of the results, particularly turnout rates? It may be banal to say that those in Tahrir Square were not socioeconomically representative of the population. But I think this point has implications for the direction of the country, says a lot about where it’s come from, and might have something to do with the (apparently) low referendum turnout.

  6. Hmmm… MSS is correct but the very fact the Communist Party “lost” votes held in 1987 and 1989 (the first time anywhere in the Eastern Bloc, I believe) suggests that the referendum was the morning star of the Prague Spring, so to speak. It occurred two years after Gorbachev came to power and started talking perestroika and glasnost. But I agree that it’s not really in this category. Also it wasn’t (as far as I can tell – the info seems very vague) about constitutional structures as such.

    • Before the vote, Essam el-Erian, a Brotherhood leader and spokesman, appeared on a popular television show, “The Reality,” arguing for the government’s position in favor of the proposal. With a record turnout, the vote was hailed as a success. But the “yes” campaign was based largely on a religious appeal: voters were warned that if they did not approve the amendments, Egypt would become a secular state.

      Via the NYT. (And we’ve already been over that “record turnout” thing.)

      h/t Yaacov.

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