'The boss' seen cruising to poll victory

With the battle to keep his throne all but won, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s main struggle on the eve of Wednesday’s landmark election was to secure a strong enough turnout to legitimise his victory.

Mubarak wrapped up his campaign for the country’s first contested presidential election with an appeal to Egypt’s 32-million voters to go the polls but observers predict many could stay at home.

“The Hosni Mubarak speaking to you tonight is seeking the support of each and everyone of you,” he told vast crowds in Cairo on Sunday on the final day of his campaign, which has been dominated by pledges to create more jobs and improve wages.

According to independent estimates, turnout reached barely 10% in the previous elections won by the 77-year-old Mubarak, and observers suspect there will be no correlation between votes cast and the official result.

Uncertainty over the ability of independent observers to monitor the election because of a dispute between the electoral commission and the courts has fueled fears of widespread vote-rigging.

Until now, Egyptians had only been able to approve a single candidate, but Mubarak—who has ruled Egypt for 24 years—introduced pluralist elections earlier this year under intense international and domestic pressure.

With the four-term president known as “rais” or “the boss” at little risk of being dragged into a second round showdown with one of his nine opponents, newspapers were rife with speculation on the turnout figure.

Official results are not expected for several days although a Mubarak win would probably be confirmed before then.

A member of Mubarak’s campaign had said on condition of anonymity that 40% would be a “great result” but opposition leaders and observers have charged that the incumbent would lack legitimacy if turnout fell short of 50%.

The country’s judges—tasked with supervising the polling process—relented on their threat to boycott the vote but warned they would not endorse the result if their demands for independence were not met.

They asked for independent monitors to be allowed inside polling stations, a demand approved by the judiciary but denied by the electoral commission, which opposition leaders charge is controlled by Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party.

The judges have been a thorn in the government’s side in recent months.

In July, they issued a report alleging widespread fraud in a May referendum that paved the way for electoral reform and charging that turnout was barely a fifth of the 53% officially announced by the regime.

“The limited power of the judges cannot prevent election rigging,” judge Ashraf al-Barudi said in Al-Dustour newspaper, adding that he expected reprisals from the regime.

The ministry of information on Tuesday insisted that the electoral commission was all-powerful and that its decisions cannot be appealed, saying it had “exclusive jurisdiction on matters related to presidential elections.”

In practice, it remains unclear what kind of access the hundreds of independent monitors trained by Egyptian NGOs will have to the almost 10 000 polling stations which will be open from 8am (5am GMT) to 8pm (5pm GMT).

The more than 30 organisations involved in the unprecedented push by civil society for election transparency have drawn up plans to circumvent the ban by sending voters as undercover monitors.

They are also planning to set up camp outside some polling stations and have handed out checklists and set up hotlines to report violations of electoral rules.

After three weeks of campaigning, the fiery leader of the liberal Ghad party—40-year-old Ayman Nur—emerged as the most serious challenge to Mubarak and his most virulent critic.

Although he managed to raise his profile as the leading opposition candidate, many observers predict second spot could be clinched by Numan Gumaa, who chairs the liberal Wafd party.

Critics have charged Gumaa is a token opposition candidate who was prodded into standing by Mubarak’s ruling party to strip Nur of votes.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said on Tuesday that he expected the country’s first pluralist presidential election to promote democratic change elsewhere in the region. - AFP

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