What Does Voter Turnout Really Mean? Status Quo in Egypt

While elections and electoral processes are frequent topics within Comparative Politics, but the details and intricacies have largely escaped my readings so far. Most of my research has focused on military politics and authoritarian rule in the Middle East. But recently, discussion about Egypt’s second presidential elections since the 2011 revolution has brought the issue of voter turnout to the foreground.

Nearly a year after President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by a mass uprising cum military coup, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El Sisi put his leadership to the vote, confident that he would win handily. A major win would indicate that Sisi’s rule was popular and legitimate, rather than coercive and opportunistic. The election achieved part of his goal — he was elected as president with more than 92% of the vote. However, the election was much less than a popular mandate. Only 46% of registered voters turned out to cast their ballots, a marked decline from the 52% turnout from the 2012 elections that put Morsi in the Ettihadiya palace. Low turnout on the first day of the scheduled two-day elections led the military government to declare the second day a national holiday, and even extended voting into a third day in the hopes of increasing participation.

Much of the media coverage and commentary on the election have highlighted the significance of the low participation. The National, a major English-language newspaper in the UAE, wrote that “it was all about turnout,” reporting one media host “said the low turnout was tantamount to handing over the reins of power back to Morsi.” Steven Cook writes that “pictures of empty polling places revealed Egyptians’ apparent apathy or opposition toward their new leader…This is hardly the kind of mandate Sisi and his people were expecting.”

But what does “low turnout” really mean? How does that 46% stack up against other Egyptian elections, or other Middle Eastern elections? As I mentioned before, turnout for the 2012 Egyptian presidential elections, the first after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, approached 52%. However, the 2005 presidential elections saw only about 23% turnout. These were the first multi-candidate presidential elections in Egypt’s history, and it was largely regarded as rigged for Mubarak. That same year, the Palestinian Territories saw a 46% turnout for presidential elections. Last year, Iran’s presidential elections turned out 73% of registered voters. Tunisia’s 2009 presidential elections had nearly 90% turnout.

But maybe presidential elections may not be the best lens through which to view voter turnout, particularly in the Middle East. Most Middle Eastern countries are autocratic, without elections for the executive. Looking at Parliamentary elections, we see a remarkable 62% turnout for Egypt’s landmark 2012 elections — the first following the 2011 revolution. This marked a dramatic increase from the heavily rigged and criticized 2010 elections, which saw only 27.5% turnout (and which helped spark the 25 January uprisings themselves). Jordan’s 2013 Parliamentary elections saw a 56.5% turnout, a slight increase from 53% in 2010. Turkey frequently seen turnouts in the 80% range. Iraq’s elections of the past decade have ranged from 64% to nearly 80%. The voter turnout data for Iran is spottier than most, but we can see that the 2008 elections had just under 50% and the 2012 had about 62%. Clearly, there is an enormous variation across the region and over time.

In Egypt, at least, the data speaks for itself. While Egypt’s voter turnouts are almost systematically lower than those of her neighbors, the 2014 Presidential elections were about average. 2011-12 elections aside, 46% voter turnout is well within the normal range for Egyptian elections. Maybe this does mean that the recent election demonstrated the Egyptian people’s apathy or opposition to Sisi. Maybe it does make his mandate less meaningful. But it is certainly not abnormal for Egyptian electioneering. It certainly marks a decline from the post-2011 elections, which embodied a spirited debate amongst several social groups over the direction that the new Egypt should take. But I think this is understandable, given the apparent return to pre-2011 status quo in many aspects of Egyptian life. So the question is not “Why did so few people turn out to vote this year?” but rather “Why don’t Egyptians turn out for their elections, especially when their neighbors do?”

Thoughts?

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One thought on “What Does Voter Turnout Really Mean? Status Quo in Egypt

  1. It may be the case that the purpose of the election is not to indicate that Sisi’s rule is popular and legitimate, but rather to demonstrate that Sisi’s rule is authoritative. After all, Sisi has not given his speech yet where he uses the word legitimacy 56 times. Sisi ran this election without a credible competitor, making this a hard sell for proof of “legitimacy.” It’s a similar case to Syria, where Assad just conducted an election in the midst of a civil war. What did Assad expect to gain by conducting an election in which the opposition is on an active battlefield?

    Maybe both of these elections are cases of Foucault-Wedeen style spectacles. According to her then, Sisi’s election would be intended to:
    (1) discipline the participants and organize them for the physical enactment of ritual gestures
    (2) instantiate political power; dramatize the state’s power by providing an occasion to enforce obedience
    (3) serve to anchor visually and audibly politically significant ideas and self-conceptions that may otherwise remain fluid and abstract (e.g., that we are in a new Egyptian regime – one that does not include the Muslim Brotherhood)

    I have some trouble disentangling these, but the jist is this – be powerful by demonstrating power. If this is the logic behind the election, it makes these turnout numbers even more troubling for Sisi. It means that not only is Sisi’s mandate less meaningful – his *authority* is less meaningful.

    In this formulation, the puzzle of “Why don’t Egyptians turn out for their elections, especially when their neighbors do?” remains very interesting.

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