New Egyptian electoral system–not yet

Egypt is supposed to try again at electing a parliament early in 2014. But, based on the following paragraph from a long article at Al Monitor about the non-regime, non-Brotherhood parties, it would appear that no one yet knows what the electoral system will be:

Despite the various meetings and discussions aiming at forming political alliances, the official announcement of these alliances will not come before the committee tasked with drafting the constitution specifies whether the electoral law will adopt an individual or list system.

These parties, working within a National Salvation Front, propose a “mixed” system, though clearly they do not mean mixed-member. Here is the (not so clear) description:

The NSF parties have proposed a new electoral law, other than the individual and list system, dubbed the “free popular choice.” According to the system, every list has its own code and every member on this list has a specific code. Voters can choose the list code if they wish to vote for all its members, one specific member code or many member codes. When voters choose the list code, every member will be granted an electoral vote. If voters choose a specific member code, the electoral vote will be granted to that chosen member specifically.

The counting process will be implemented over two phases. The first phase is dedicated to the lists as a whole; all votes given to the list are counted. During the second phase, the votes given to each member of the lists are counted.

It is not clear to me whether “member” here means a party within an alliance, or if it means candidates. It might mean an open or flexible list (with multiple preference votes allowed), but it is not clear. In any case, it is just a proposal. The passage quoted has a link, but the item is in Arabic.

Of course, the Brotherhood will boycott.

Egyptian coup threat–and a proposal for a presidential-election method

Following a weekend of remarkable protests against President Mohammad Morsi, Egypt’s armed forces have made an ominous declaration:

Wasting more time will mean more division and conflict, which is what the armed forces warned of and of which it continues to warn.

In the statement, the army gives the civilian leadership 48 hours to “fulfill the people’s demands” or else it will offer a political “roadmap”. Despite stating that the military “will not become involved in politics or administration”, the statement sure seems like a coup threat.

The failures of Egypt’s transition from the Mubarak era to something different, whether democracy or whatever, have roots in areas I am not intellectually competent to address. It is certainly a deeper problem than bad institutional design and sequencing. However, Egypt is quite the textbook example of bad institutional design and sequencing. First a few reminders on the sequencing, then some thoughts on an institutional design that might be too late for Egypt, but potentially helpful in some future case of transition from dictatorship.

Egypt has an elected presidency but a non-functioning legislature. The specific occasion for the current protests is the first anniversary of Morsi’s assuming executive power. The legislature’s first chamber was dissolved following a judicial decree that the electoral system was unconstitutional; the electoral system itself was indeed poorly designed. Let’s just say that this crisis of civilian authority is not exactly a surprise, given this track record. ((And there were warning signs even earlier, given the unusually low turnout in a transitional referendum.)) I am not aware of any successful transition to democracy in which there was an elected presidency in the absence of an elected legislature–the advice of at least one US political scientist that Egypt should set exactly such a precedent notwithstanding. ((I am not sure of the current status of the second chamber of the national legislature. Even if it functions, the absence of a first chamber is itself symptomatic of a dearth of checks on the presidency.))

But the president has a popular mandate, so what’s wrong? Well, not much of a mandate. Egypt, like many presidential (and semi-presidential) countries, elects its presidency by two-round majority. In more institutionalized settings, this might be a perfectly fine rule. But in transitional settings, it often may not be. The top-two rule, by requiring a second round if there is non consensus in the initial vote, ensures that the winner will have a majority of votes cast, and thus in principle prevents an “extremist” from winning. However, the achilles heel of this election method is the first round. What if the top two finishers in a crowded field are both “extreme” in some sense? For instance, one heads an ideological movement that was not the prime mover of the anti-dictatorial protest, while the other was a holdover from the dictatorship itself? What if these top two did not even represent half the votes cast in the first round? As I said at the time, the Egyptian first-round result was “Not promising.

In fact, a more moderate/liberal candidate finished a close third, and was thus eliminated. He might have been a Condorcet winner, meaning the candidate who would beat any other in one-on-one competition, but of course, he never got the opportunity to show if he was. There were other relatively liberal candidates in the race as well, which of course is the problem: they split the vote, whereas the Islamists (Morsi) and old-regime forces (runner up Ahmed Shafiq) were more unified.

This leads me to my modest proposal. To guard against divisions in an unsettled political field during a transitional process, why not take a page from the old Uruguayan system of presidential election? In Uruguay, it used to be the case that the presidency was chosen by essentially an open-list PR system. A party or alliance could have several candidates, and the winner was the candidate with the most individual votes within the party/alliance with the most collective votes. I am not suggesting this system exactly: I think either a majority-opposed president or a candidate with the most personal votes who nonetheless loses (because he was not in the biggest party/alliance) is a potentially dangerous idea in cases of poorly defined political lines–such as Egypt currently. Rather, I am proposing such a system for the first round only. The eventual winner would still require a majority.

Here is how it would work: candidates would have the option of declaring alliances with other candidates, once registration of contenders was complete. If one of the candidates won an absolute majority, the race would be over, and the alliance declarations would not come into play. However, in the event no candidate won a majority of votes, the runoff pairings would not necessarily be the top two candidates. Instead, they would be the leading candidates from each of the two largest alliances.

Of course, there is no guarantee that candidates representing a potential bloc of moderate voters, such as Egypt’s liberals, would agree to set aside their egos or policy disagreements and declare an alliance. But such a rule would give them the option, and at least provide the more moderate forces a chance of avoiding a catastrophic coordination failure. Such failure is inherent in a first round that is more SNTV (multiple candidates from a bloc or proto-bloc, but only candidate votes matter in setting the top two) to one that is more open-list (pooling of allied candidates’ votes being the first criterion in setting the runoff pairing).

One might argue that it would be better to use ranked-choice ballots, such as the alternative vote (a form of “instant” runoff). Or not to have a presidency at all. These might be good arguments. But actual transitional cases often have a presidency, and in practice never have ranked-choice ballots. I offer this modest proposal as a more palatable one–or so I think it could be–that addresses the basic problem.

It is too late to save Egypt from a major political crisis, and it is in any case a lot to ask of a presidential-election method to save a country from crisis. But at least the rules chosen should stay out of the way, and the top-two majority-runoff rule did at least fail to do no harm.

Egypt’s draft semi-presidential constitution

The draft Egyptian constitution is now available in English. As expected, it establishes a semi-presidential system.

One oddity that jumped out at me: it has a term of office for the House of Representatives (5 years) that is longer than that for the President (4). I can’t recall ever seeing that before.

The House can withdraw its confidence from the Prime Minister by absolute majority of all members, and upon proposal by one tenth of the membership (Art. 126). Another odd provision is that it seems a successful vote of no-confidence only affects the tenure of the PM himself unless “the Cabinet announced its solidarity with him before the vote,” in which case the whole cabinet must resign.

The president appoints the prime minister, who then has 30 days to form a cabinet. If this proposed cabinet does not obtain confidence, “the President shall appoint another Prime Minister from the party that holds the majority of seats in the House of Representatives” (this stricture is not imposed on the initial appointment). If this PM also fails to gain confidence (how could he, given the majority-party stricture, or maybe the Arabic actually means “plurality”), then the House itself appoints a PM. If that PM also somehow fails to assemble a cabinet that can gain confidence, there must be a new House election within 60 days. (These provisions are somewhat akin to those of the Polish constitution.)

I do not see a specific provision related to the resignation of a cabinet, aside from those regarding withdrawal of parliamentary confidence. The silence of the constitution on whether the president can force the resignation of a PM leads me to believe this constitution should be classified as president-parliamentary, rather than premier-presidential.

The president may dissolve the House, though only after calling and winning a referendum to that effect. If he loses the referendum, the president must resign (Art. 127).

The constitution, unsurprisingly, grants protection to the armed forces. Not only is the military singled out as having “protected” the revolution in one of the first statements of the constitution, but also Art. 194 says “The Armed Forces shall belong to the people” and Art. 195 says that “The Minister of Defense is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, appointed from among its officers” (my emphasis). It seems to me that the military is thus made essentially above the law, or at least not subordinate to the president or legislature.

In matters of religion and state, God is mentioned in the second line of the preamble, Art. 2 says “Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic its official language. Principles of Islamic Sharia are the principal source of legislation” and Art. 3 says “The canon principles of Egyptian Christians and Jews are the main source of legislation for their personal status laws, religious affairs, and the selection of their spiritual leaders.”

A referendum on the draft constitution is set for 15 December.

Egypt draft constitution on religion

I was pleasantly surprised to see this in the draft constitution for Egypt:

Article 3 The practice of Christianity and Judaism

Persons embracing Christianity and Judaism shall have the right to revert to their respective religious laws in matters relevant to personal affairs, the practice of religious (affairs) or (rituals), and the nomination of spiritual leaders.

On the other hand, there is this (in Art. 2):

Islam is the religion of the State and Arabic is the official language. The principles of Islamic Law are the main source of legislation and Al-Azhar is the final authority in the interpretation thereof.

and this:

Article 4 Al-Azhar

Al-Azhar is an independent Islamic authority, headquartered in Cairo, and responsible for the affairs of the Islamic nation and the world as a whole. […]

(Egypt’s draft, at least the English translation posted, does not yet define the system of government.)

Egyptian court rulings

Egypt’s Constitutional Court has ruled unconstitutional the nominal tier of last year’s legislative election– the 1/3 of seats that were elected by majority in 2-seat constituencies. (heard on BBC radio; news outlets, e.g. Reuters, are just getting this out)

These seats were dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The court also ruled against a law, passed by this parliament, that would have disqualified Ahmed Shafik, from the presidential runoff.

Brotherhood vs. Mubarak’s last PM

It appears the runoff in Egypt’s presidential election will be between two candidates who combined for less than half the votes cast–out of a turnout of well under half the voters.

Mohammed Morsi of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party polled around 26% in the two-day first round. Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, came second with 23% when 90% of the votes had been counted. (The Guardian)

Not promising.

The runoff will be 16-17 June.

Egypt and transition sequencing

It would seem that one would not want to wait until the week of a presidential election–or worse still, between rounds of said election–to define the powers of the president-to-be. But then there is Egypt.

I believe it is unusual for a president to be elected before a constitution–even a provisional one–has been enacted. Normally, there is a constituent assembly, during which time a provisional government remains in place, as in Tunisia currently, or else a constitution is negotiated prior to any elections (as with several Eastern European and African transitions of the 1990s). In fact, the only other examples that come to mind of presidential elections preceding a determination of presidential powers are Nicaragua (1984) and Romania (1990). At least in the latter case, the the first president was elected to only a two-year term (as was the concurrently elected constituent assembly).

Meanwhile, apparently the voter turnout in this week’s first round of the presidential elation was only 50% or even just 40%. Either figure would be really, really low for a first presidential election in a transition to democracy–or an alleged such transition.

This is not the first time that the Egyptian transition has prompted me to fret over issues of sequencing or turnout.