Egyptians turned out to vote again on Wednesday in the run-off of a staggered election marred by deadly clashes between protesters and security forces that have left 14 people dead in five days.
Polling stations opened at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) in a third of the country’s 27 provinces with a visibly lower turn out than previous rounds, AFP reporters said.
The run-off in the second round of legislative polls, which takes place over two days, will see the two largest Islamist parties go head to head for 59 seats of the lower house.
The ruling military has decided on a complex election system in which voters cast ballots for party lists, which will comprise two thirds of parliament, and also for individual candidates for the remaining third of the lower house.
On Wednesday, voters are choosing individual candidates in nine provinces as well as party lists in three provinces where voting was postponed due to administrative problems in the opening phase.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has repeatedly pointed to the elections, the first parliamentary polls since a popular uprising ousted Hosni Mubarak in February, as proof of its intention to hand power to civilian rule.
The procedure to elect a full assembly ends in March. Presidential elections are expected by the end of June.
The elections have exposed a deepening rift among Egyptians who see them as the first step to democratic rule and those who say the new parliament — whose function remains unclear — leaves control in the hands of the military.
The SCAF has also faced growing outrage at its heavy handed tactics against demonstrators.
Deadly clashes that erupted on Friday pitting troops and police against protesters demanding an end to military rule have piled pressure on the SCAF, with liberals and Islamists uniting to condemn its handling of the transition.
On Tuesday, the military apologised for attacks on female demonstrators that had prompted local and international outrage.
The ruling generals, facing a backlash after videos circulated of soldiers beating female protesters and partly stripping a veiled woman as they dragged her, pledged action against those responsible in an unusually contrite statement.
The apology came hours after the country’s forensics chief cast further doubt on the generals’ credibility when he said most protesters killed died of gunshot wounds, despite military denials they fired on demonstrators.
Despite clashes before and during the elections, the voting itself has been orderly and mostly calm, with Islamists emerging as the front-runners.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party said it won 39 percent of votes in the party lists, with 49 individual candidates vying for seats in Wednesday’s run-off.
The Al-Nur party, which represents the more hardline brand of Salafi Islam, has claimed more than 30 percent of the votes in the lists and has 36 candidates competing in the run-off.
In the first round of the elections which began on November 28, Islamist parties trounced their liberal rivals, securing around 65 percent of all votes cast for parties.
The Muslim Brotherhood had been widely forecast to triumph as the country’s most organised political group, well known after decades of charitable work and opposition to Mubarak’s 30-year regime.
But the strong showing by Salafist groups, which advocate a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, was a surprise, raising fears of a more conservative and overtly religious 498-member new parliament.