CAIRO - Early results from Egypt's election showed President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi cruising towards his expected landslide victory and a second term, but with a lower turnout than the vote that brought him to power four years ago.
As ballots are tallied for official results due on April 2, the focus is on turnout since Sisi faced no credible opposition after a crackdown against serious challengers. Critics say the contest recalled the kind of vote that kept Arab autocrats in power for decades before the 2011 Arab Spring.
Initial estimates by state media placed turnout at around 40 percent at most, well below the 47 percent in the vote that brought Sisi his first term in 2014.
The former military commander overthrew Islamist Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first freely-elected president, during turmoil in 2013 that followed a popular uprising two years earlier.
Sisi was first elected in 2014 with 97 percent of the vote and has this time won around 92 percent according to preliminary results, state news agency MENA reported state-run newspapers as saying. It said between 23 and 25 million people had voted, out of an electorate of 59 million.
Authorities were keen to ensure a higher turnout this time around as Sisi saw attendance at polls as a referendum on his popularity and was seeking a strong mandate to fight militants and push through tough economic reforms.
State-run media trumpeted Sisi's victory early on Thursday, predicting 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
Early indications from sources monitoring the vote, however, suggested turnout could be lower than in the 2014 election.
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.
The two sources had said late on Wednesday the final turnout figure could be less than 40 percent.
Israel announces new agreement to export natural gas to Egypt, February 19, 2018. (GPO)
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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.
Egyptian authorities and media outlets have tried to garner as many votes as possible, telling voters it is their duty, and portraying a failure to vote as betrayal of their country.
Other tactics have also been deployed, with some voters saying they were paid and given other incentives to cast their ballots.
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.