CAIRO, Egypt (AP) – Egyptians went to the polls Wednesday in their most robustly contested parliamentary election in more than 50 years, but no one expected the vote to unseat the long dominant party of President Hosni Mubarak.
Campaigners for democracy see the elections as a test of Mubarak”s promise to open up the political system. Popular confidence in the polls will be shown by the turnout. The ruling National Democratic Party is pushing for a large turnout after the disappointment of September when Mubarak was returned to power in polls in which a mere 23 percent of the voters took part.
Voting was slow but steady Wednesday, and even before polling stations opened, Muslim Brotherhood agents were out on the street hustling to get voters to the polls.
Ruling party agents used three minibuses to bring supporters to the el-Khalili School polling station in Maadi where National Democratic Party organizers offered sandwiches to voters.
Police had to intervene at the el-Minshiya polling station in southern Cairo when scuffles and fist fights broke out among supporters an NDP candidate and an independent candidate.
One voter, housewife Wafa Imam, 30, stood in line to vote at a Maadi polling station and observed the elections were fairer than previous ones.
"In 2000, the police prevented Brotherhood supporters from entering this street to go to the polling station, but now it is different. We are being allowed to vote even though the police know that we are Brotherhood supporters," she said.
Observers also noted that for the first time, the ballot boxes were transparent.
Mubarak cast his ballot in Heliopolis School after a meeting at his nearby palace with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The president was accompanied by his wife and son Gamal, who has played a major role in directing the ruling party”s campaign.
In a televised speech urging people to vote on Tuesday night, Mubarak had pledged the elections would be "fair and free." Previous legislative elections have been marred by widespread reports of fraud and voter intimidation.
They have produced parliaments with little space for the opposition. After the 2000 legislatives, the ruling party held 88 percent of parliament”s 454 seats.
Ruling party representatives have said they would like to see the opposition better represented in the new parliament, but nobody expects the National Democratic Party to lose its majority.
"The regime can tolerate an opposition, but not a strong opposition which will threaten it," Khalil al-Annani, an analyst with the local International Politics journal, told The Associated Press. "Its main concern is survival, not change."
The biggest change in these elections came as late as Sunday when a court overruled the Electoral Commission and granted civil society groups the right to station monitors inside polling stations.
A judicial panel that reviewed the September presidential polls pointed to a lack of checks and balances in the counting of ballots.
"The secrecy that shrouded the vote counting by the special election committee cast doubts on the results and lacks transparency," the panel said this week. Government critics fear the same problem could emerge in these polls.
A record 5,000 candidates are standing in the elections, which are spread over three stages, beginning with Wednesday”s vote in Cairo and seven other provinces. The next two polling days are Nov. 20 and Dec. 1. The majority of the candidates are independents; 300 others are from various opposition groups, and 150 are nominal independents supported by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt”s largest Islamist group, the Brotherhood is banned but tolerated. It endorses candidates who run as independents, and some analysts think that 30 to 40 of these candidates will be elected.
The Brotherhood held 15 seats in the previous parliament, while other opposition parties had 17 seats and true independents filled 34.