The First Round of Egypt’s Presidential Election: What Actually Happened?

A little late to this, but I wanted to look at the first round of Egypt’s presidential election and evaluate what happened.

I only partially get to claim predicting this outcome. After noting that Moussa’s support was probably very overstated, I still went ahead and predicted “Shafiq and Moussa win the first round, although a strong possibility that it will be Shafiq and Morsy.” With that in the past, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on what happened. There are obviously many people qualified to provide more detailed analysis in a way that I can’t, but I hope this provides some original insight for others to mull over.

Moussa didn’t collapse, his support never existed

One of the most shocking things for many was that after leading every survey for the past year, Amr Moussa finished in a distant fifth place. I think the real reason Moussa lost is the people who would have voted for him didn’t vote. As I discussed before the election, Moussa was doing far better in those surveys which had a lower level of “undecided” voters. Many of these surveys also had turnout models of around 70-80 percent. Actual turnout, however, was around 40 percent. This is probably where to look when trying to explain the massive failure of those polling the election and I think it can explain where Moussa’s support went as well. Moussa’s support was among the undecided voters who are typically the least engaged and least informed. The most partisan supporters are going to be the mostly likely to vote on Election Day in any country. The ones less attached to any candidate are going to be the least. The causality of the relationship is that the most active and informed citizens will develop the most interest in candidates and issues. If Moussa’s advisers were smart, they would have told him he was going to lose early on May 23 when the initial turnout estimates started to come out.

Moussa was a consensus option. This may sound like a good place to be in, but consensus options are your second choice, not your first. In other words, Moussa was the guy everybody would have voted for in round two.

Aboul Fotouh’s benefited from Salafi support

It’s hard to pin down Aboul-Fotouh’s base of support. He seemed at times to enjoy popularity among liberals and Salafists.  The latter, we know, did endorse his candidacy (at least several leading figures). While it’s true that the Salafis don’t have the organization of the Muslim Brotherhood, there is a decent correlation between Al-Nour party vote percentage in 2011 (the Salafi poliitcal party) and About-Fotouh vote percentage in 2012.

The relationship is robust, and Nour Party vote totals can explain 44 percent of the variation in Aboul Fotouh support.  One notable outlier is the governorate of Kafr el-Sheikh, where Aboul Fotouh did far worse than we would have expected given Nour’s performance in 2011. Two explanations for this are 1) Kafr el-Sheikh is the home governorate of Hamdeen Shabhi and 2) prominent Salafi cleric Abu Ishak was in Germany having his leg amputated,  severely hurting the Salafi network in the region.

Ahmed Shafiq’s support

The brief surge of Omar Suleiman in the polls, before he was disqualified, showed that there was a large constituency for a return to the Mubarak era. You can think of this what you will, but it’s the truth. Shafiq clearly understood this and tapped into this sentiment. There have been two things said about Shafiq’s support. That it is 1) based solely in the Delta, and 2) based primarily on Coptic Christians. These not only contradict themselves slightly (there aren’t a lot of Christians in the Delta) but the latter charge has a danergous ethnic element to it. I’ve heard that the MB played up this story to their own benefit, but I’ve also seen some on the left make the same charge.

Let’s first look at the Christian accusation. It’s obviously impossible to tell the religion of the person who cast each vote and the government has always refused to reveal religious demographic data by governorates.  But we do have a nice proxy for Coptic voters via the last parliamentary elections: the Free Egyptians Party. Although it presents itself as a secular party representing all Egyptians, The Free Egyptians’ base is well-known to consist almost entirely of Coptic Christians. So what happens when we look for correlations between Free Egyptians votes in 2011 and Shafiq votes in 2012? Well, it turns out there is nothing there. Does this mean no Copts voted for Shafiq? Of course not, many clearly did. But many Muslims voted for him as well.

The other charge is that Shafiq only did well because of the Delta region. This is partially true; thirty-three percent of Shafiq’s votes came from the governorates of Minoufiya, Sharqyia and Gharbiya. But the charge that this somehow undermines his legitimacy seems odd. Saying that Shafiq’s support is only a Delta thing is like saying his support is only a “half of the country” thing. Forty-four percent of Sabahi’s came from the two large cities of Alexandria and Cairo/Giza, but we don’t hear any complaints about that.

The Egyptian left failed to coordinate

Two-round presidential electoral systems are pretty common. The requirement to ensure a candidate receives an absolute majority of voters creates a level of legitimacy that a plurality winner would not have. It also reduces the need for voters and candidates to act strategically. There is more room for a voter to cast a ballot for their first choice, even if they don’t think they will likely win. It’s not wasting a ballot if they can assume their second choice (the consensus candidate) makes it into the second round.

This assumes, however, a consolidated political spectrum that has a clear line between the left and the right. It also assumes voters have some concept of the relative strength of the candidates (ideally they would be supported by a party, which would have a clear level of support). Egyptian voters didn’t have these options. Many on the left voted for Aboul Fotouh, thinking he was the least bad option that also had the most realistic chance of winning. Others choose Sahbahi, while some went for Shafiq. I’m hearing a lot of, admittedly anecdotal, stories of voters wishing they knew beforehand that Sahbahi would perform so well. This is understandable. Despite his late surge, a rational, secular Egyptian voter could have felt that voting for Sahbahi was a wasted vote.

It’s not just the lack of information about relative candidate strength that hurt the left, however; it was the lack of a defined left-right spectrum that made it difficult to coordinate. In Germany you could vote for the Greens in the first round, then the Social Democrats in the runoff.  This would be the logical shift in preference based on your options. What would have been the similar path for a liberal? Who would have come before Sahbahi? How would one even begin to place candidates like Aboul-Fotouh on any spectrum?

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Posted on June 9, 2012, in Elections, Electoral Systems, Middle East and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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