Another version of this article appeared on the Freedom House Blog on May 16th, 2011 and on Huffington Post Politics on May 21st trying to figure out answers to the following five questions:
- If voting is a fundamental right in a democratic process, then why would an individual, or group, choose to forgo a chance at participating in elections?
- Why stifle one’s own voice?
- Can the activity or party strategy of calling upon society to boycott elections as a way to delegitimize the results actually increase democratization?
- What are the political and social gains when boycotting elections?
- What’s been the success rate of boycotting elections?
Boycotting elections poses an existential crisis for opposition parties–not the ruling ones– whether the people are ready to vote or not. Earlier this week in Egypt, both the April 6 youth movement and the Strong Egypt Party decided to boycott the presidential elections between Hamdeen Sabbay and former General Abdel Fattah Al Sisi which are scheduled for May 26-27. Ahmed Imam, official spokesman for “Strong Egypt” Party, told Aswat Masriya that the upcoming elections is a “skit to install Sisi as president.” Switch out Sisi with some other high-profile candidate, and we see this familiar fear from 2011…
In the Oscar nominated Egyptian film, about voice and votes, “The Square” hints at a central dilemma that Egyptians have faced since holding presidential, parliamentary, and constitutional referenda elections in the last three years. In a deliberate screenshot, activist Khalid Abdalla debates with his writer/activist mom the necessity of delaying elections so that more parties can participate; the alternative is for voters and blocs to boycott elections if they are held too early as it diminishes new parties’ abilities to organize. His mother responds that aiming for perfect elections by delaying them does not promote stability–and allows society’s frustration to fester.
Khaled says “There are no decent parties.”
Activist/Author, Mona Anis: “So what?” I want the people to vote in the next two months.
Khaled: But the Ikhwan will win.
“Humanity has not discovered anything better for representation than elections.” If we don’t have it as soon as possible.
Where is anything in the middle?
Mona: “I am so “***” scared of the moment that some lieutenant or brigadier general or something will say ‘enough of this rubbish…we are back to military rule completely.’ It’s in their interest that this disintegrates into chaos. It is in their interest to say: ‘you people, enough–law and order.’”
Usually in elections, the voters’ central dilemma is deciding whether to vote for candidate ‘A’, ‘B’, or even ‘C’. However, in Egypt’s upcoming presidential elections, voters and organizing blocs are revisiting the dilemma they faced in their 2012 elections in deciding whether to even vote at all. Simply put: to boycott elections or not to boycott? If voting is a fundamental right in a democratic process, then why would an individual, or group, choose to forgo a chance at participating in elections? Why stifle one’s own voice? Boycotting elections emerges as a “third option”, but the boycott strategy presents a false option for voters and parties because it throws away a vote and voids the collective voice.
Why Boycott Elections
Considering Egypt’s upcoming presidential election on May 26th, a few reasons may push election boycotts. The first reason applies to many countries–not just Egypt–and that is the concern for election fraud. One can sympathize with the voter decision to boycott elections given the concerns for ballot secrecy. Depending on how secure the voting measures are, voters worry that casting their ballot for anyone, other than the incumbent or winner, may be targeted once they exit the polling station. But secret ballots also introduce an element of risk. It is easier to commit voter fraud if the ballot is secret during electronic voting. In principle, the most secret type of ballot means that even the voter has no record of her vote, thereby making the vote ‘untraceable’. If the vote is untraceable, then there is an opportunity for parties to rig electronic voting and exclude candidates and groups.
Speaking of exclusion, a second argument for employing the boycott strategy is to draw attention to how non-inclusive the electoral process is, which would result in underrepresented minorities. Boycotting by underrepresented groups may draw international attention — specifically, signaling to human rights groups that elections are not inclusive, which thereby, delegitimize the election results.
The third argument for boycotting elections speaks to the frustration of a “perceived” false choice, as seen in Egypt’s post-Mubarak elections. During the 2012 presidential run-off elections, most Egyptians felt that they were compelled to choose between a Scylla and a Charybdis with Ahmed Shafiq or Mohamed Morsi on the ballot. Egyptians could either vote for a remnant of the Hosni Mubarak era, Ahmed Shafiq, or vote for a symbol of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi. Consequently, only 46 percent of eligible Egyptian voters turned out for the first round of elections, according to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. By the second round, the campaign to boycott Egypt’s presidential elections, known as “voiders” or “mokate’oon” in Arabic, presented itself as the “third option” to Shafiq and Morsi. As a result, voter turnout was even lower.
South Africa’s Unique Success With Elections Boycott
Revisiting South Africa’s 1994 elections demonstrates how the boycott strategy produced success as it mobilized domestic and international pressure to include more representative voices. These were the first elections after the fall of apartheid — a success championed by Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) party. As such, it was no surprise that the ANC was positioned to win because of Mandela’s leadership success. Yet, the ANC’s popular support meant that there was less chance to have a broad representation of voices in the electoral process, which worried opposition forces. For example, opposition party head, like Mangosuthu Buthelezi of Inkatha, stood little chance winning outside of his province. Buthelezi wanted more autonomy for his province, so he used the boycott threat to leverage his party’s position and represent his province’s interests. Buthelezi rallied domestic pressure around international pressure to negotiate with the ANC and gained two concessions. The gains in boycotting elections were recognized before the election because it was the THREAT by Inkatha/opposition party to carry out the boycott, which facilitated their goal of beating the ANC in KwaZulu, the province that had lobbied for more autonomy. South Africans in KwaZulu also voted, rather than boycotting, because they had more choices since Inkatha ultimately competed. Thus, Inkatha leveraged its role by employing the threat of boycotts as a tactic without actually implementing the boycott.
Boycott Strategy Fails in Most Cases
Although the boycott strategy worked in South Africa’s case, evidence shows that boycotting elections failed in most cases. Between 1990 and 2009, the boycott strategy rarely succeeded for voters, according to a 2010 study entitled “Threaten but Participate: Why Election Boycotts Are a Bad Idea” by Matthew Frankel. In the 171 cases Frankel examined, he found that the boycott strategy only worked 4 percent of the time globally. Given Frankel’s findings, why did the South Africa example from 1994 experience the rare success while the other 96 percent of cases did not? Frankel reasoned that the threats of boycotts can be effective when there’s strong domestic and international pressure to ensure that the elections are fully representative.
Boycotting elections may make a point at the expense of both the individual voter as well as at the organizational level. The intended goal of boycott is to sit on the sidelines and let him (or the predominant party) fail so that the opposition stands a better chance of winning in the next cycle. But this is the gamble that Frankel discusses, which has not proven successful in most cases. For example, consider Venezuela’s 2005 elections, which show how the opposition boycott drew in only 25 percent voter participation. The following year, Chavez’s coalition passed a series of policies because “he was also aided by high abstention rates among opposition voters who were convinced that the balloting was futile or not entirely secret,” reported Freedom House.
Lebanon’s 1992 election provides a similar example, with even longer-term implications. Maronite Christians boycotted electoral participation (about one-third of Lebanon’s electorate). The immediate result of boycotting left a void for a newer political party, like Hezbollah, to gain more of a political voice. With about 87 percent of voters not voting (mainly Christian) a “record number of candidates won unopposed or with nominal competition” found a Lebanese study of 1992 parliamentary elections. In the last two decades of Lebanon’s electoral politics, Hezbollah has maintained its increasing voice because it has rallied its voting base. Overall, evidence shows that giving up a vote — ironically to “voice” a larger grievance — is a gamble that has worked for very few groups in 4 out of 100 instances.
In addition, the boycott strategy incorrectly assumes that the opposition parties can stay out of practice in organizing campaigns and then easily reactivate for each campaign cycle. For example, look back at Iraq’s 2005 elections where voicing without voting did not change outcomes. In Iraq’s January 2005 elections, a concerted Sunni boycott resulted in a “strategic blunder”, according to Frankel, because Sunnis won only 5 of 275 parliamentary seats. Consequently in the short term, Sunnis relinquished their veto power during the constitution drafting process that followed. In the long-term, groups that boycotted had to redouble their efforts to reactivate its voter base so that they could regain lost seats in the December 2005 elections.
In addition to Frankel’s study, recent cases reinforce the 96 percent failure rate in boycotting elections. Libya’s and Algeria’s 2014 elections witnessed both a voter and party boycott. In March 2014, Libya’s ethnic Amazigh decided to boycott Libya’s Constituent Assembly. Consequently, 2 of the 60 seats designated for the Amazigh remain empty and without a voice.
Likewise, in Algeria’s case, six parties boycotted because they feared vote tampering would occur to guarantee the incumbent’s win. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, Algeria’s presidential incumbent (Bouteflika) won with even less opposition. When parties boycott, they fail the electorate. Neither Libya’s, nor Algeria’s, boycott strategies produced a party to party negotiation, unlike the successful South Africa case. Furthermore, voters pay for the decision in both the short-term and long-term given that alternative parties remove themselves from the next cycle of legislation (Iraq, Libya, and Venezuela) and decision-making (Lebanon).
Frankel’s study and recent case show that executing an elections boycott does not achieve the goal of getting the contested party out of power. Unlike South Africa’s example where the threat of — not the actual boycott — proved successful, boycotting the presidential elections amounts to apathy at the ballot box. In the case of Lebanon, Venezuela, Iraq, Algeria and Libya, it would have been better for candidates to invest their energy into organizing an election campaign rather than a boycott campaign. When the opposition and voters boycott, they forget that elections are not just a one time effort. There is always the next election cycle. So why sit on the sideline and relegate the party voice to “non participant”?
Reflecting back to Egypt’s case, boycotting elections poses an existential crisis for opposition parties — not the ruling ones– whether the people are ready to vote or not. “The Square” hints at the central dilemma that Egyptians have faced since holding presidential, parliamentary, and constitutional referenda elections in the last three years. In a deliberate screenshot, activist Khalid Abdalla debates with his writer/activist mom on the necessity of delaying elections so that more parties can participate. The alternative is for voters and blocs to boycott elections if they are held too early as it diminishes new parties’ abilities to organize. His mother responds that, “Humanity has not discovered anything better for representation than elections,” and that aiming for perfect elections by delaying them does not promote stability while society’s frustration festers.
In Egypt’s case, citizens still have a chance to vote–so why not cast the ballot so that there is stronger voice to hold the winner accountable if he does not satisfy the electorate? The task is to organize the voice and votes, not to organize ‘non-voting’. Therefore, Egyptians must voice beyond protesting, and vote, because voting provides the incentive for political parties to organize themselves and produce better candidates.