CAIRO Egypt's first open leadership contest looks better managed than an earlier parliamentary vote, making it harder to influence the outcome by hustling voters, stuffing ballots and other abuses, an election observer said on Thursday.
The state election body has toughened oversight of polling stations and improved voting and counting procedures since the legislative vote that ended in January, said election specialist Ossama Kamel, a consultant to several international groups.
"We have seen a lot better control of campaigning on election day than during the parliamentary vote when there were lots of violations," he told Reuters in an interview on the second and final day of first-round voting.
"People are not there with their laptops this time, telling people where to vote and, by implication, who to vote for."
The Muslim Brotherhood in particular was criticized for its laptop-wielding ushers during the parliamentary election.
Even as the first-round presidential vote got under way on Wednesday, many Egyptians still seemed undecided, tempting to rival campaign camps to pull out all the stops.
Some have bussed citizens to polling stations or campaigned nearby in violation of the rules. Accusations of vote-buying, in cash or kind, common in Mubarak's day, have also resurfaced.
"Vote-buying doesn't happen on the day in the polling station," said Kamel. "It happens in voters' homes or in meeting places like the mosque and you can have no control over this."
He faulted the election committee for doing too little to explain to people where and how to vote and for long delays in issuing official badges to foreign and local election monitors.
But he said he was more confident that ballot boxes could not be tampered with this time round, and that polling station workers were better prepared to catch abuses.
"The system has been improving a lot and I think they have listened more to international advisers ... who came with measures to enhance the process," he said.
During the parliamentary vote, he said, veiled women were able to vote multiple times by concealing their identities.
"The lady now has to reveal her face and take her glove from her hand to reveal the ink stain," he said, explaining voters had to show an inky finger to retrieve their identity cards.
Twelve candidates were competing in the first round, with two Islamists and two former Mubarak officials among the top contenders for the two places in a probable run-off in June.
The Islamists suspect their opponents of distributing favors using the deposed leader's old patronage networks.
Critics accuse the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists of securing votes partly through handouts to the poor and bringing their activists to lobby voters right outside polling stations.
Kamel said ballot rigging was now harder than in the parliamentary election, itself a huge improvement on the routinely rigged polls of the Mubarak era.
He cited a new technique ensuring that only one genuine national identity card number is associated with each vote.
However, under new rules, representatives of accredited monitoring groups have complained that they are barred from commenting on the election before the results are announced.
Fewer international groups are monitoring the vote than during the parliamentary election, whose final stage was overshadowed by a judicial crackdown on several civil society groups accused of receiving illegal foreign funds.
The election committee has accredited 9,700 monitors from 54 foreign and local groups for the presidential election.