Saturday, March 19, 2011

Constitutional Referendums

Today is a big day—the constitutional referendum. Egyptians will go to the polls—many for the first time—to vote yes or no on an amended constitution. The issues are complicated on many levels. Most of the activists and opposition groups have endorsed voting “no”; the Muslim Brotherhood leadership came out in support of it but a youth faction has come out in opposition. Actually I can say that I don’t personally know of anyone who is voting “yes.” All of my students said they are voting “no.” I can’t read too much into it because I know that the people I know are not necessarily a representative sample.

There are several issues which motivate the “no” folks. One of the major ones is that the amendments maintain the provisions for emergency rule which has been in effect for the past 30 years. For example, the amendment that allows for elected presidents to serve no more than two four-year terms, could be overridden by executive authorities which remain in place. Furthermore, it seems like the constitutional question has in many ways evolved into a referendum on military rule.

I have asked a few taxi drivers about the elections, and the most remarkable thing is their willingness to talk politics so openly. There is no consensus, but I did ride in a taxi last night whose driver told me he was voting “yes.” His explanation, to the best that I could understand it, was that Mubarak is gone, the people won, and he seeks as quick of a return as possible to some semblance of stability. Strong centralized military rule—at least in the short term—is considered by some to provide the best opportunity for that.

In my American Studies class, we read the US Constitution, and have recently been reading the Civil War amendments (13th, 14th, 15th). One of the things I have discussed in class was the position of many radical abolitionists who burnt the Constitution at demonstrations and believed that amendments were not sufficient to change a document stained by slavery. In some ways, the question is similar here--whether or not to replace or amend Egypt’s 40-year-old constitution (which you can read in English here).

There are lots of other issues at play, which are beyond what I can explain. Some critics feel that it is too soon to vote on amendments, that the process should be more through, and take more time. You can find some insightful and detailed analysis online.

For me, one of the most remarkable things has been the expectation of high turnout. Given the opposition’s lack of confidence in the process, and the short time since its announcement, I was not sure what to expect. I imagined that a significant segment of the population that would express their opposition by declining to participate in an election they do not consider legitimate. On this point, I think I was starkly wrong. Everyone I have spoken to over the past few days is planning on going to the polls. (People can vote at any polling station they want by using their national identity card.)

In December 2005, I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo for their constitutional referendum, when many people were voting in a real election for the first time. It was exciting. A holiday was declared (as it is for tomorrow here). The process in DRC was more involved—voter registration was required. There was an international commission supervising the election. The Congolese constitution had been written over the course of several years following the installation of Joseph Kabila as head of a transitional coalition government (following the assassination of his father in 2001). It was overwhelmingly approved. There was little controversy, but the turnout was high. In many ways it was a dry run for presidential elections the following summer, which Joseph Kabila won in a run off. With the next presidential election approaching later this year, in January, Kabila pushed constitutional amendments through parliament, including one that will limit the presidential election to one round. The public argument is economic; however, this will clearly benefit Kabila by preventing the diverse opposition groups from forming a strong coalition behind the first round’s second place finisher.

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