CAIRO // Egyptians entering voting booths today will confront one of the most complex electoral systems in the region, if not the world.
"For Egyptian voters, this will be the first time dealing with a system like this," said Mazen Hassan, a professor at Cairo University who has studied Egypt's electoral law.
"The law is very complicated, which causes difficulties especially in a country with a high illiteracy rate."
For the lower house, voters choose two individual candidates from their district and a single party or bloc of parties for another larger electorate that includes their district.
One third of the seats in the lower house, the People's Assembly, and the upper house Shura Council will go to those individual candidates chosen at the district level.
The rest will be allocated in line with the votes won by parties or blocs in the larger electorates.
For these, a quota is set for each seat, set by dividing the number of votes by the number of seats - what is known as the largest remainder method.
Say three parties are fighting for two seats in a constituency where the quota is 1,000 votes. One party wins 1,300 votes (one quota plus 0.3 of a second quota), one 400 (0.4 of a quota) and the third 300 (0.3).
The second seat goes to the party with 0.4 of quota because that beats the first party's 0.3, even though that party won more than three times the number of votes of the second.
This proportional voting system is designed to help smaller parties and prevent the dominance of larger parties.
Another reform that could have a significant impact on the make-up of the new parliament is that half the lawmakers must be a "peasant" - owning less than 10 feddans of land (4.3ha) - or a "worker" - a union member.
This means that even if two regular candidates have more votes than any peasants or workers, the top candidate will win and the top peasant or worker will win the second seat.
And a law passed this month could allow a legal challenge against a win by any former member of Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party - opening the possibility of a re-run.
Like manu countries with low literacy rates, the election commission has assigned symbols to paries, blocs and candidates depicting easily recognisable objects such as a pyramid or a vacuum cleaner.
Elections for each house will take place in three phases because all voting stations must be supervised by a judge, but there are not enough to cover the whole country at once.
The complete elections will take roughly three-and-a-half months, with the full house of parliament convening for the first time in March.
The phase that begins today is made up of 3,305 polling stations for 17.5 million eligible voters, who will choose from 7,861 candidates vying for 168 seats, according to the electoral commission.
Final results will not be available until March but the individual candidate races will be announced after any run-off votes in each phase.
None of the 55 parties running are expected to win an outright majority, so most have formed alliances. Here are the four main political blocs voters will choose from:
The democratic alliance: The dominant force in this Islamist coalition is the Muslim Brotherhood, through the Freedom and Justice Party. Other prominent members include Ghad Al Thawra and Al Karama. The group is widely expected to win the largest number of votes.
The Egyptian bloc: A liberal grouping of more than a dozen parties. Leading members include the Free Egyptians Party, Egyptian Social Democratic Party and the Al Tagammu Party. It also includes the Sufi Liberation Party.
The Islamist bloc: Brings together the Salafist Al Nour and Al Asala parties, and the Building and Development Party.
Revolution continues: Describes itself as a mix of liberals, Islamists and socialists. Leading members include the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, Egyptian Socialist Party and the Egyptian Current Party, formed by members of the youth wing of the Muslim Brotherhood who defected.
Others: The ‘felool’ (remnants), at least six new parties formed by former officials of Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. The afd is Egypt’s oldest party. Formed in 1978, its roots go back to the 1920s.