The Egyptian Constitutional Referendum and the Impact of Voter Boycott


Egyptians returned to the ballot-box yesterday in the first of two rounds of voting to approve their controversial new constitution. Unofficial reports indicate that the referendum received 56.5 percent approval, with 43.5 percent of the voters choosing to reject the constitution. Tensions certainly ran high throughout the country, with many protests outside of polling places, but it appears that the street violence many feared was fortunately absent.

While some have claimed that voting irregularities call the results into question, the much larger threat to the validity of the referendum is the very process by which the constitution was drafted, and the the fact that much of the opposition actively called for boycotts. The Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm ran an article articulating the calls of these groups in the days before the election, arguing that “voting on this constitution is also invalid, and the last thing we want to do is give legitimacy to a process that is already void. We shall not be carried away by the illegitimate rules they [President Morsi and the Brotherhood] are imposing on Egyptians. This whole game is unacceptable and illegitimate.”

While the popular critiques of the referendum and constitutional process are certainly valid, it’s worth considering whether the strategy of boycotting the polls is the best way for the opposition to advance their cause. High profile opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei has called for cancellation of the referendum in order for the body drafting the constitution to engage in a dialogue with a broader group of Egyptians, allowing for alterations to the current charter. This is the immediate goal shared by most opposition groups, though ElBaradei’s National Salvation Front did, in the end, call for a “no” vote rather than a boycott. The early voter turn-out numbers, however, seem to indicate that many Egyptians simply chose to stay home.

Only 33 percent of eligible voters turned out on Saturday. A stark decrease in participation from the parliamentary elections that took place a year ago and garnered over 60 percent turn out. The Egyptian al-Arham suggests the numbers indicate that the “apathy many people showed towards the referendum cannot be ignored in the context of the ongoing battle between the ruling Islamists and the civil opposition.” But what will happen if the constitution passes without broad-support from the electorate? Will it discredit the entire process by denying a popular mandate and force Morsi and his FJP back to the bargaining? I’m skeptical.

The Muslim Brotherhood has asserted a robust governing mandate since Morsi’s election despite the fact that he won only narrowly, and that many of his supporters held their noses as they cast their ballots out of fear that Shafiq would win the presidency. If the relative “illegitimacy” of that mandate has had a demonstrable impact on the actions of the government, I haven’t seen it. On the other hand, empirical studies of large-scale election boycotts seem paint a slightly more optimistic picture, at least in the medium term. Emily Ann Beaulieu’s exhaustive study of the subject found that:

…international election monitors were more likely to be invited to subsequent elections following a major boycott.  It was once again highlighted that international actors might prove to be a receptive audience, particularly for Gandhian boycotters, and might be able to pressure incumbent regimes, either for political reform or for greater international involvement in the future.  Thus, international involvement is motivating the behavior of both incumbent rulers and their oppositions, leading rulers to hold elections and, in some cases, to make those elections more fair, and providing oppositions with an opportunity to engage in this particular form of protest.

It would be rational, then, to hope that broad-based boycotts of the referendum process may be able to leverage international and domestic support behind encouraging the ruling government to implement more democratic processes in the future, especially as they relate to electoral law and independent election monitoring. And as Brookings Fellow Shadi Hamid has pointed out, serious negotiations about election law need to take place in advance of the upcoming parliamentary elections, as the power to set those rules moves from President Morsi to the Brotherhood-dominated Shura Council. If phase-two of the referendum, scheduled for December 22, is characterized by a comparable level of voter apathy, it seems we’ll have another test-case for the value of electoral boycott. Though the outcome is still a mystery.