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.1 (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.