Opposition charges of ballot stuffing, bullying and dirty tricks clouded a legislative election in Egypt on Sunday in which the ruling party wants to prevent its Islamist rivals from repeating their 2005 success.
Some voters were turned away by officials saying there was no election or that polling booths had shut. Others reported ballot boxes filled to the brim only minutes after voting began, rights groups and opposition campaigners said.
The banned Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidates are tacitly allowed to run as independents, contested 30 percent of lower house seats after winning an unprecedented 20 percent in 2005.
But the Islamists expect a lower total this time. Hundreds of their activists were detained ahead of the poll, signalling the government’s determination to squeeze its most vocal critics out of parliament before a presidential vote in 2011.
“There’s no voting going on, just rigging. It’s a disgrace. May those who rig votes be crippled,” said Hassan Sallam as he emerged from a polling booth at Raml, in the northern city of Alexandria. “There was no privacy. The ballot boxes were full.”
Abdel-Salam Mahgoub, the candidate for the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) in that constituency, denied any abuses.
“These are accusations from people looking for an excuse to cover their failure,” he told Reuters. Brotherhood supporters chanted “Void, void” as NDP supporters walked in to vote.
The Brotherhood candidate, Subhi Saleh, accused his NDP rival of distributing “outrageous” fake pamphlets in Saleh’s name that said falsely that he was quitting the election.
Saleh said later he was roughed up by thugs after he and supporters tried to enter the Abees polling station in Raml.
NDP ALWAYS WINS
Hassan Said, a 25-year-old chemist, said he tried to vote for Saleh in Abees but a state security officer watched him fill out the ballot paper and said he must choose the NDP candidate.
“We resisted, but then he said: ‘If you don’t vote like I tell you, you will not leave this polling station’,” said Said.
The vote’s result is in no doubt, only the margin of victory for President Hosni Mubarak’s NDP, which has never lost a poll.
The two-round election in which 508 seats are at stake, with 10 more appointed by the president, may also offer a foretaste of how the government conducts next year’s presidential vote.
Mubarak, in power since 1981, has not said if he will run again and investors say uncertainty over the future leadership has been dampening foreign appetite for Egyptian securities.
A Citibank currency trader in Cairo said some capital left Egypt last week but put this down to a broader exit from riskier global assets due to Korean tensions and Ireland’s debt crisis.
“If there are no problems around these elections, that might lend some support to the pound,” he said. The Egyptian currency traded near a five-year low reached in early November.
Voting began at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and ends at 7 p.m. (1700). A run-off will take place on December 5 for districts where no candidate won more than 50 percent in the first leg.
LESS VIOLENCE THAN 2005
The government has promised a free and fair election, rejecting calls by Egypt’s main ally and aid donor, the United States, to allow international monitors.
A spokesman for the High Elections Commission, a body of judges and parliament nominees, said complaints so far were not serious and would not hinder the vote, which was going smoothly.
In Cairo, voting appeared very thin at a dozen polling stations around the capital, where only a handful of people were waiting to cast ballots, with a few policemen on guard duty.
The head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, Gamal Eid, said the vote was marred by less violence than in past elections, but that was no guide to its fairness.
“Most of the monitors are saying that many ballot stations were closed and ballots were already stuffed before the voters were allowed in,” said Eid.
The son of an independent candidate was stabbed to death in Cairo before voting began, the Interior Ministry said. Reports conflicted over whether the killing was politically motivated.
In Mahalla El Kubra in the Nile Delta north of Cairo, the scene of sporadic labour unrest, Brotherhood activists said police and thugs closed three polling stations soon after they opened, saying all registered voters had cast their ballots.
The official turnout in the 2005 election was 22 percent. Rights groups put it at 12 percent.
Three people were killed and 30 wounded in pre-election violence, said the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights. It had previously put the death toll at four. The Arab Network for Human Rights Information said one person had died.
Fourteen were killed in 2005 when voting was staggered over about a month.