Lessons Learned from Egypt's Presidential Runoff: The Case for Using an Instant Runoff Ballot

by Erin Ellis, Arab Spring Series // Published June 15, 2012


The divisive first round of Egypt's inaugural post-Mubarak presidential election has sparked mass protests, corroborating the need for fairer democratic procedures.  As a country still undergoing democratic transition, this election--if its lessons are taken seriously--could determine the quality of Egyptian democracy going forward. 

Last month, thirteen candidates vied to become Egypt's first democratically elected president.  Like most presidential democracies, Egypt used a national popular vote for president, with a runoff between the top two finishers if no candidate won more than 50% of the first round vote. The build-up to the vote had controversial elements, including several leading candidates being denied a chance to run, but hopes were high for a reasonably fair election.

As none of the contenders won fifty percent of the vote--or even a quarter of the vote--the top two candidates will go head-to-head in a runoff election slated for June 16 and 17.  The runoff will pit two polarizing candidates against each other, neither of whom represents most of those who gathered in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring protests--a fact that is stirring frustration throughout the country, particularly among those active in the protests.

The runoff will be a contest between Mohammed Morsi--chair of the Muslim Brotherhood, who won 5.7 million votes (24.8%)--and Ahmed Shafiq, who served as prime minister under Mubarak's regime and won 5.5 million votes (23.7%).

Many Egyptians fear that either runoff victor will not be representative of the revolution and a step backwards for democratic reform.  Some argue that Shafiq will pander to Mubarak's loyalists and reinstate policies of the old guard, while a Morsi victory would tip the balance of power toward Islamists, whose Freedom and Justice Party already controls Parliament (although just today that parliament has been disbanded by Egypt's high court).

Five candidates received nearly all of the votes cast in the first round. Collectively, almost forty percent of first round votes favored the two leading candidates receiving the backing of most leaders of last year's revolution--Hamdeen Sabahi and Abol Fotouh.  Sabahi, a leftist opponent of Mubarak, placed third in the first round contest with 20.7%.  Fotouh, a more moderate Islamist leader, finished with 17.5%. (Although backed by many of least year's leaders of Arab Spring, he also received the endorsement of the Salafi Al-Nour party, which is the most conservative Islamist party.) The candidate in fifth garnered 11.1%, Amr Moussa, is the former head of the Arab League and backed by many more secular Egyptians.

Although he only fell short of winning the second-place position by 2.9%, or 700,000 votes, Sabahi is out of the race. As a result, liberals, socialists, and moderate Islamists--comprising a majority of the electorate--feel disenfranchised.

The first round results, which are not only polarizing but also contradict the moderate majority, signal a flaw in Egypt's election rules.  It seems that use of instant runoff voting (IRV) ballots, whereby voters rank their preferred candidates, would produce fairer outcomes.  IRV would prevent against the "spoiler effect," ensuring the electorate that their votes for third party candidates are not wasted.  Moreover, if Egyptians could rank their preferences, a majority of votes would likely be redistributed toward Sabahi--who seems to have been less polarizing than Shafiq and Morsi. 

As IRV elects the candidate who earns the majority of the electorate's votes, it would be an effective remedy to a presidential race that has disenfranchised the majority of Egyptians. Although IRV is typically used in one round of voting, it would also have marked a major improvement if built into a two round system. The use of IRV in the final round could have allowed more than two candidates to advance--Morsi, Shafiq, and Sabahi, or perhaps adding Fotouh as a fourth candidate--presenting more choice and more opportunities to build coalitions in the final round. Alternatively, IRV could have been used in the first round in narrowing the field, thereby ensuring that the two finalists were more representative choices for the final runoff election.

As it is, this election could set a precedent for weak democratic procedures going forward.  Even more detrimental, a lack of reform could cause the public to lose faith in a democratic system altogether.  It's at least possible, however, that public dissent over the polarizing outcome will trigger election reform for future elections.

If nothing else, the Egyptian runoff illustrates that rules of the game matter. If electoral reform does prevail, Egypt could become a global paragon for democratic governance--a testament to IRV's tangible benefits and to the malleability of election rules.