CAIRO, (AFP) — Egypt went to the polls on Sunday for second-round runoffs in a parliamentary election that President Hosni Mubarak’s party is poised to win almost unopposed in the face of an opposition boycott.
At one polling station in Cairo shortly after polls opened at 8:00 am (0600 GMT), police outnumbered the few voters waiting to cast their ballots, an AFP photographer reported.
Egypt’s two main opposition blocs, the Muslim Brotherhood and the liberal Wafd party, withdrew from the race after official results from last Sunday’s first round gave the ruling National Democratic Party 90 percent of the seats decided outright.
The conduct of the election drew criticism from human rights watchdogs which fielded observers and also from key Egyptian ally the United States.
The opposition boycott of the second round leaves the ruling party with 383 candidates to compete mostly against rivals from within the same party for the remaining 283 seats.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the only serious opposition force, did not win a single seat in the first round. The group held a fifth of the seats in the outgoing parliament, fielding its candidates as independents to get round a ban on religious parties.
The Brotherhood’s decision to pull out its remaining 27 candidates from the second round marked its first boycott of an election since the 1990s, although it has complained of fraud in every election in which it has taken part.
The Wafd party, which usually has working ties with the government, won two seats in the first round. In a rare display of resolve for the fractured party, it announced that it too would pull its candidates out of the second round.
Three other parties which each won a seat last week decided to keep their candidates in the race.
There are also 167 independent candidates on the ballots, according to the electoral commission, but that included the 27 Brotherhood members.
Analysts said the NDP appeared to have overplayed its hand by virtually wiping out the opposition, strengthening the impression of Egypt as a one-party state.
Egypt’s veteran president appoints 10 lawmakers in addition to the 508 elected members of parliament. Most of those seats are also expected to go to the ruling party.
“The pullout of the opposition adds to the legitimacy crisis. It means the opposition are no longer buying into the system. The damage done to the NDP is huge,” said Amr Hamzawi of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The ruling party insists the election has been free and argues that support for the Islamists in particular was exaggerated, according to its own opinion polls.
But human rights groups say they gathered evidence of fraud and vote-buying in the first round, after a campaign which already made it very difficult for the NDP’s opponents to win seats.
Police arrested more than 1,000 Brotherhood supporters in the runup to the vote, drawing a protest from Washington, which usually avoids mention of the Islamists in its rare criticism of Cairo.
Brotherhood candidates faced restrictions while campaigning, and at least 11 of the group’s supporters have been sentenced to two-year jail terms for distributing its campaign literature.
The vote is seen as a possible indication of Egypt’s far more important presidential poll due in late 2011. Mubarak, 82, has yet to announce whether he will stand and is widely believed to be grooming his son Gamal for succession.
The near absence of opposition parties in parliament means whoever stands for the NDP in the presidential election will have almost no competition, a scenario which could raise questions over the president’s legitimacy.
Independent candidates for the presidency need parliamentary approval, while party candidates require a minimum representation in parliament.