CAIRO — Just under a third of voters turned out for the first stage of the referendum on a constitution meant to be a historic milestone in setting Egypt’s future — a showing critics say deepens doubts over the legitimacy of a charter that has already polarized the country.
The dismal showing also raises the question whether Egyptians have been turned off by the turmoil that has characterized the country’s politics throughout the nearly two years since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic regime.
Last Saturday’s voting took place in 10 of Egypt’s 27 provinces, including Cairo and the nation’s second largest city Alexandria. Some 26 million voters were eligible to vote, but only 32 percent of them did. Voting in the remainder 17 provinces will take place the coming Saturday.
The turnout was the second lowest of the relentless series of five nationwide elections that Egyptians have been called to in the 22 months since Mubarak’s fall in last year’s popular uprising. The highest was nearly 60 percent in the election of parliament’s lawmaking lower chamber. The lowest was an embarrassing 8 percent for the vote for the upper chamber, a largely toothless body that the public cares little about.
Besides the low turnout, preliminary results show that the “yes” vote carried the first round only by a slim margin of 56 percent — hardly the resounding endorsement the Islamists were looking for to silence the increasingly vocal and united opposition that called on supporters to vote “no.”
For weeks, legal experts in Egypt have said if turnout is low and the final majority in favor of the constitution is lower than 70 percent, it would raise damaging questions about how representative the document is of the nation.
But a spokesman for Islamist President Mohammed Morsi dismissed any talk of thresholds.
“The new constitution will be adopted and go into effect if the result of the referendum is 50 plus 1 percent of votes,” said Yasser Ali. “This is what is in the election law and it has not been changed.”