CAIRO (Reuters) - President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi cruised toward a landslide election victory against no real opposition but early results showed a lower turnout than the vote that brought him to power in 2014, despite efforts to get more Egyptians to the polls.
The vote this week had long been set to hand Sisi a second term after a crackdown against serious contenders left one challenger, widely dismissed as a dummy candidate. Critics say the contest recalled the kind of vote that kept Arab autocrats in power for decades before the 2011 Arab Spring.
With the election seen by many, including Sisi, as a referendum on his presidency, the focus is on turnout which he has sought to support tough economic reforms and a fight against Islamist militants.
Critics say austerity and an unprecedented crackdown on dissent have eroded Sisi’s popularity, but supporters say such measures are needed to stabilize the North African country after years of unrest that followed a 2011 popular uprising.
The former military commander overthrew Islamist Mohamed Mursi, Egypt’s first freely-elected president, after protests against Mursi’s rule in 2013 and was elected a year later.
Early estimates by state media on Thursday placed turnout from three days of voting at little over 40 percent, well below the 47 percent of 2014. Sisi is expected to win more than 92 percent of votes, the state media said. He won 97 percent last time.
Final results are due on April 2.
State-run media trumpeted Sisi’s victory early on Thursday, saying there was a “big turnout”, and radio programs said that most of the voters were from Egypt’s fast-growing youth.
“The people have chosen their president”, the front page of state-run daily al-Ahram said.
Sisi said on his official Twitter account: “The images of Egyptians in front of polling stations makes me proud and is proof of the greatness of our nation.”
Authorities urged as many eligible voters as possible to cast their ballots, with state media portraying a failure to vote as betrayal of their country.
State news agency MENA reported state-run newspapers as saying that between 23 million and 25 million people had voted, out of an electorate of 59 million.
On the first two days of voting, turnout was about 21 percent, two sources monitoring the election said, and a Western diplomat said that late on Tuesday it was between 15 and 20 percent.
It appeared that more people spoiled their ballots than voted for Sisi’s sole challenger, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, who has widely been dismissed as a dummy candidate, the sources said.
“All preliminary reports suggest that turnout is down compared to 2014 despite all the efforts that have been made to raise the numbers,” Timothy Kaldas, non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said.
“But it’s not clear what consequence the turnout will really have on a government that doesn’t appear to believe the people should have a say in who rules them to begin with,” he said.
All serious opposition dropped out the election race earlier this year citing intimidation after the main challenger, another former military chief, was arrested. Egypt’s election commission said the vote would be free and fair, and Sisi said he wished more candidates had run.
Sisi’s presidency has returned the military to power after turmoil following the 2011 uprising that toppled long-time leader Hosni Mubarak.
Additional reporting by Ahmed Mohamed Hassan, Ahmed Tolba, Editing by William Maclean and Giles Elgood