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Egypt holds parliament runoffs amid fraud claims

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CAIRO — Egypt held runoff parliamentary elections Sunday that are certain to hand President Hosni Mubarak's ruling party a crushing victory after the two main opposition groups decided to boycott in protest of alleged fraud in the first round.

The vote, which will decide the fate of 50 percent of parliament's 508 elected seats, was marred by reports of armed clashes in the north and south and allegations of widespread vote buying in many constituencies in Cairo.

With a large-scale crackdown ahead of the vote that included arrest sweeps, Egypt's ruling establishment appeared determined to purge the largest opposition group, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, from the next legislature. The aim seems to be to ensure the Brotherhood cannot use parliament as a platform for dissent amid uncertainty over the country's future and in the lead-up to next year's more crucial presidential elections.

Both the Brotherhood and the other key opposition group, the liberal Wafd party, boycotted Sunday's runoffs. As a result, most of the contests pitted rival candidates from Mubarak's National Democratic Party against each other, ensuring a parliament almost entirely made up of the ruling party, with a few seats going to independents and smaller parties.

"NDP versus NDP," said the headline in the Wafd party's newspaper.

Such an outcome could backfire for Egypt's regime, eliminating any outward appearance of a fair vote and depriving them of any democratic legitimacy.

Election Commission spokesman Sameh el-Kashef said final results will be released Tuesday.

After the first round, the Obama administration said it was disappointed by widespread reports of irregularities that cast doubt on the credibility of the polls in the strong U.S. ally.

With apparently so little at stake, only a small trickle of voters seen going into several polling stations in Cairo, a city of some 18 million people.

"People preferred to stay away, even though some candidates are offering 200 pounds (about $34) per vote," said Salah Ibrahim, a representative of one of the contenders, referring to plainly evident vote buying.

He spoke from a polling station that saw so few voters some election workers were napping on benches.

At a polling station in Cairo's Matariya district, 21-year-old Mohammed Ashraf was collecting IDs for around 15 young men for a list of voters who received money in return for casting ballots.

"All these youth you see are going to get money but no one knows yet how much," he said.

The Independent Coalition for Monitoring Elections, which is made up of several Egyptian non-governmental organizations, said that voters were being paid "from 20 pounds to 150 pounds," or roughly from $3.50 to $26, for their ballots.

Outside the capital, Interior Ministry spokesman Tarek Attiya said that supporters of rival candidates exchanged gunfire in separate incidents in Qena province in the south and Behria province in the northern Nile Delta. Attiya said police detained around 50 supporters of one candidate for allegedly rioting in the southern province of Sohag. There were no reports of casualties.

The Brotherhood, the country's best organized opposition group, controlled a fifth of the outgoing parliament but failed to win a single seat in the Nov. 28 first round. Twenty-seven of its candidates had been slated to contest the runoffs.

The Brotherhood promotes the creation of a more Islamic society and talks of fighting corruption and heavy bureaucracy.

The small Wafd party won two seats last week, and the decision to boycott Sunday's balloting led to divisions within the party. The party warned its eight candidates eligible to contest runoffs that they would be expelled if they win seats. At least one refused to back down.

The country's election commission estimated turnout for last week's vote at 35 percent, but rights groups put the figure at no more than 15 percent.

Around midday on Sunday, the election commission described turnout as low but did not give a precise figure.

There are questions over the future of the country's leadership after the 82-year-old Mubarak underwent surgery earlier this year to remove his gallbladder.

Mubarak is believed to be grooming his son Gamal to succeed him. But there is widespread public opposition to the "inheritance" of power, and Mubarak could still decide to run again in next year's election.

The Brotherhood, which is banned but runs candidates as independents, came under a heavy crackdown before the vote and about 1,400 of its activists were arrested during the campaign.

Associated Press writers Maggie Michael and Maggie Hyde contributed to this report.