CAIRO (Reuters) -Egyptians voted on Wednesday in the first stage of legislative elections expected to make only minor inroads in the domination of parliament by President Hosni Mubarak”s National Democratic Party (NDP).
The elections are especially important this year because they could decide who can run for president of the Arab world”s most populous nation at any time up to 2010. Mubarak is 77.
Parties must win at least 23 of the 444 elected seats in the lower house to field a presidential candidate during parliament”s next term.
Election officials at six Cairo polling stations reported turnout of between 10 and 20 percent. Turnout at the end of the 2000 elections was between 14 and 40 percent.
Opposition and monitoring groups reported incidents of intimidation, vote-buying, abuse of state-owned vehicles and tampering with ballot boxes. Inaccuracies in electoral registers were also a big problem and some voters did not use the indelible ink meant to prevent multiple voting, they said.
"There is complete forgery by every way and means," said Mohamed Mahdi Akef, head of the Muslim Brotherhood, an opposition Islamist group which runs candidates as independents because authorities ban them from forming a party.
It has about 140 candidates and was the largest opposition bloc in the outgoing assembly with 17 seats.
The Brotherhood said that in one constituency three ballot boxes were swapped en route to vote counting stations. Opposition groups complained they were blocked from observing the counting.
"It”s the same old stubborn regime playing the same old tricks. This is a police state and they don”t give up," said Gameela Ismail, wife and spokesman of opposition Ghad party leader Ayman Nour.
Leading Ghad party member Akmal Taam said thugs attacked him outside a polling station in central Cairo. In the south Cairo suburb of Maadi, NDP supporters scared away voters until security forces arrived, witnesses said.
Still, there was less violence than in the 2000 elections, when 10 people were killed.
A delegation of European parliamentarians who observed voting uninvited said there was some improvement but Egypt could do better. "Palestine operated a model election under occupation and I think possibly the Egyptians could have done a bit better," delegation head Edward McMillan-Scott told Reuters.
The NDP, which had over 85 percent of seats in the old parliament, is expected to win a large majority, just as Mubarak did when he scored 89 percent in Egypt”s first contested presidential elections in September.
Employees of state-owned industries were brought to polling stations to vote for NDP candidates, monitors said. Voters employed by NDP candidates, many of whom own large businesses, said they had been given time off and transport to vote.
Mubarak, his wife Suzanne and son Gamal voted near the presidential palace in northeast Cairo. Gamal is a prominent NDP politician widely seen as a possible successor to his father.
Despite heavy security in some places, some voters said they were encouraged by what they called a changed political climate.
"The last time I came to vote, they didn”t want to let me in and we stood for hours. This year we are seeing a lot of change," said Fatma Zahra, a fully veiled 30-year-old woman.
In the first stage of the election, voters in Cairo, the central provinces and two remote areas choose from some 1,500 candidates vying for 164 of the 444 elected seats. Polls closed at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT).
Egyptians elsewhere vote on November 20 and December 1 with run-offs six days later. Final results are expected in mid-December.