CAIRO (AFP) â€” Egyptians were voting Tuesday in runoffs for the first phase of parliamentary polls, which the opposition Muslim Brothers charged were rife with fraud by President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party.
Of the 164 first-phase seats, most of the 133 still undecided contests were pitting candidates from the ruling National Democratic Party against independents running either as NDP renegades or Muslim Brothers.
“There were many irregularities and it will lead to rigged results,” said the leader of the Islamist movement, Mohammed Mehdi Akef, after casting his ballot in the Cairo district of Heliopolis.
His movement, the largest and best-organised opposition force in Egypt, has led an aggressive and well-crafted welfare-oriented campaign that Akef hopes will help treble their current tally of 15 parliament seats.
The officially banned organisation listed a litany of irregularities in the polling process ranging from falsified registries, to voter intimidation and widespread vote-buying.
The Muslim Brothers gave detailed instances of busloads of NDP supporters voting several times and security forces in some constituencies attempting to mislead voters on the date of the runoffs and location of polling stations.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights reported that a polling station was closed down in central Cairo, and the National Campaign for Monitoring Elections charged that security forces “had lost the impartiality they demonstrated during the first round.”
One of the most intensely followed runoffs was the battle in Nasr City between ceramics magnate Mustafa Sallab and Makarem Deiri, the only woman running for the Muslim Brotherhood.
“If there is justice and no vote-rigging, I think I will win this time,” Deiri said after voting. “I am counting on the votes of people who previously supported the NDP but were disgusted by the many irregularities” of the first round.
She was ushered into the polling station by two tidy rows of young supporters, boys on one side and girls on the other, holding a banner with her portrait emblazoned on it and chanting the Brotherhood’s slogan “Islam is the solution.”
While 26 NDP heavyweights cruised to victory last week and the ruling party looked set to retain a solid grip on power, Islamists appeared on course for political gains after securing four seats in the first round.
But secular opposition candidates, including Ghad Party leader and presidential runner-up Ayman Nur, suffered major defeats in a first round that saw an official turnout of 24.9 per cent.
The Muslim Brotherhood did not field a candidate in the September presidential election, as it is officially a banned organisation.
The Islamist group hopes that improved representation in parliament will boost its case for legalisation, although the regime and its US ally oppose such a move.
According to AFP reporters on the ground and to NGOs, state factory workers were being bused in massively to cast their votes for embattled NDP candidates.
“Each company is responsible for busing its employees to polling stations… I went to work this morning and they brought me here,” said Ahmed Nuh, 50, who is employed in the southern neighbourhood of Helwan.
The NDP frontrunner in the district is State Minister for Military Production Sayed Meshaal, and one of Nuh’s colleagues told AFP that employees in his sector had been offered three months’ salary to “cast the right vote.”
While the presidential election in which Mubarak swept to a fifth six-year mandate two months ago saw an unprecedented national debate on reform, the legislative polls are a very local and personalised affair where votes are lost and won with promises for microprojects, jobs and bribes.
In a sarcastic article entitled “Brisk trading on the vote exchange market,” Egyptian editorialist Mohsen Arishie marvelled Tuesday at the sudden influx of brand-new refigerators, schoolbags and blankets in some of Cairo’s poorest homes. NGOs and opposition candidates also warned against the risk of mass fraud by the NDP during the counting process.
The elections were planned in three two-round phases. The second, which includes Alexandria, is due to kick off on November 20. All 26 governorates in the country will have finished voting by December 7.