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The Case for a 2 Round Presidential Election in Egypt

- February 21, 2011

In the coming months, it appears Egypt will be “rewriting its constitutional laws”:http://www2.macleans.ca/2011/02/15/next-steps-in-egypt-an-expert-on-transitioning-to-democracy/, which will include rules for conducting elections. If Egypt retains a “presidential system of government”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presidential_system, then the rules for electing the Egyptian president will be of paramount importance. Outside of the United States–which uses a convoluted indirect system of electing its president–most countries with presidential systems employ one of the following two direct ways of electing their president:

bq. In a _plurality election_, a single round of voting is held, and the candidate with the most votes at the end of that round is declared the winner of the election.

bq. In a _majoritarian election_, a first round of voting is held. If a candidate passes a pre-arranged threshold (we’ll call this X% of the vote) in the first round, then he or she is declared the winner of the election. If no candidate gets more than X% of the vote, then a second round of voting is held at a later date. However, participation in this second round is limited to only the candidates that performed the best in the first round. The exact number of candidates allowed to advance to the second round is set by law. As majoritarian elections often feature two rounds, they are commonly referred to as “two-round presidential elections.”

The most common threshold for winning in the first round is 50% of the vote, and the most common number of candidates permitted to advance to the second round is two. The appeal of these particular rules is that they ensure that the winning candidate receives a majority of the vote. A candidate only wins in the first round if he or she receives a majority of the vote, and by limiting the second round to two candidates, then the winning candidate in the second round will automatically receive a majority of the votes in that round by definition.

While two-round elections are more costly to hold than one-round elections, the general appeal of these electoral systems is that they allow voters to cast a vote for their preferred candidate in the first round, while still retaining the option to cast a vote that “matters” (i.e., helps to determine which of the top two candidates actually wins the election) in the second round. Thus you get the “democratic” experience of voting for your top choice without necessarily “wasting your vote” by voting for a candidate with no chance of winning, as you still have your second-round vote to cast even if your first choice is unelectable. Thus one advantage of two-round elections for new democracies especially is that they may feel more democratic.

However in certain circumstances, two-round elections can also play a role that is sort of analogous to the role played by primaries in the U.S. Imagine a country where there is only one well-organized political force in the country. (In post-communist countries, this force could have been the ex-ruling communist party; in Egypt many suspect it will be the “Muslim Brotherhood”:http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Egyptians+plan+victory+march+Islamist+role+rising/4300560/story.html.) Imagine this political force puts forward a candidate in the presidential election, and many other candidates also run for president. There are three–and only three–possible states of the world regarding the relative level of support for the candidate of the organized political force, which for simplicity’s sake I will refer to as the Muslim Brotherhood candidate:

# The Muslim Brotherhood candidate is less popular than one of the other candidates.
# The Muslim Brotherhood candidate is most the popular candidate of those contesting the election, but a majority of the electorate prefers that he or she not be elected president.
# The Muslim Brotherhood candidate is supported by a majority of the population.

Under Scenario 1, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate would not be elected regardless of whether there is a one-round/plurality electoral rule or a two-round/majoritarian electoral. Conversely, under Scenario 3, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate would be elected regardless of the electoral rule; in a free and fair democratic presidential election, if you have the support of a majority of the population you are going to win.

However, under Scenario 2, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate is likely to win the presidential election if a one-round/plurality electoral law is employed. Why is this the case? The election is held, the Muslim Candidate gets the most votes–even though it is not a majority vote–and wins the election. So this could be the case if – as suggested “here”:http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Egyptians+plan+victory+march+Islamist+role+rising/4300560/story.html –the Muslim Brotherhood candidate gets 30% of the vote, but no other candidate gets, for example, more than 20% of the vote.

In contrast, if a two-round presidential election rule is employed, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate will not be elected. Why is this? As the most popular candidate, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate will be one of the two candidates to advance to the second round. However, if a majority of the population prefers that Egypt not elect a Muslim Brotherhood candidate, then the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood will be defeated in the second round by whoever finished second in the first round. In this way, we can speak of the first round essentially functioning as a primary election for the anti-Muslim Brotherhood (secular?) forces in Egyptian society.

Of course, we do not know “how popular the Muslim Brotherhood is today in Egypt”:https://themonkeycage.org/2011/02/how_large_is_egypts_potential_.html. But if it turns out that Scenario 2 holds–that is, that the Muslim Brotherhood has the largest support of any political force in the country but a majority of the country does not want a Muslim Brotherhood president–then a one-round presidential election will not ultimately reflect the preferences of the Egyptian people. A two-round election, however, would.

Note: This post originally appeared on the “Wall Street Journal’s Ideas Market Blog”:http://blogs.wsj.com/ideas-market/2011/02/18/why-egypt-needs-a-two-round-presidential-election/.