Election Boycotts: Losing Voices and Votes

Another version of this article appeared on the Freedom House Blog on May 16th, 2014

Usually in elections, the voters' central dilemma is deciding whether to vote for candidate 'A', 'B', or even 'C'. However, in Egypt's upcoming May 26-27 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
Boycotting elections may make an immediate point: signaling to human rights groups and other watchdogs that elections are not inclusive, and thereby delegitimizing the election results. One can sympathize with the voter decision to boycott elections given three reasons:
  1. Concern for ballot secrecy;
  2. Exclusionary politics; and
  3. Frustration with a false choice (as seen in Egypt's post Mubarak election).

In the Oscar nominated Egyptian film, about voices and votes, "The Square" hints at the central dilemma that Egyptians have faced since holding presidential, parliamentary, and constitutional referendum 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:

Khaled: 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 (Muslim Brotherhood) will win.

Mona Anis: Humanity has not discovered anything better for representation than elections.

Khaled: Where is anything in the middle?

Mona: I am so "f****" 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.'

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. Boycotting elections poses an existential crisis for opposition parties--not the ruling ones-- whether the people are ready to vote or not.

The third reason 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: Rare Case of Success
If we break it down by short -term versus long term gains, and distinguish between individual voter boycotts from entire party boycotts, there may be a method to the madness.  For example in South Africa, the African National Congress party was favored to win, which posed a challenge for the opposition party head of Inkathah, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. He wanted more autonomy for his province, so Buthelezi used the boycott threat to leverage its position to ultimately participate in elections. The gains in boycotting elections were recognized before the election because it was the threat, rather than the Inkatha/opposition party actually carrying out the boycott, that facilitated their goal: beating the ANC party in the province, KwaZulu-Natal, the province that had lobbied for more autonomy. Inkatha leveraged its negotiating role because of THREATENING--not 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. 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"?

As found in 171 cases of the opposition choosing to boycott elections, the boycott strategy only worked 4 percent of the time, according to a 2010 study "Threaten but Participate: Why Election Boycotts Are a Bad Idea" by Matthew Frankel.

Looking back at Iraq's 2005 elections and Lebanon's 1992 elections, voicing without voting does 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, they relinquished their veto power during the constitution drafting process that followed. In the long-term, groups that boycotted had to redouble their efforts to regain lost seats in the December 2005 elections.

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.

Boycotting elections may make a point at the expense of both the individual voter as well as at the institutional level.  Perhaps it boils down to how organized the opposition parties are and what their coordination efforts achieve to demonstrate that the election results are not legitimized.  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.

Yet, in 2010, when the opposition participated in parliamentary elections, they won.  Perhaps their reasoning to boycott earlier, and allow Chavez to win, brought about frustration among the electorate to vote out Chavez's party supporters out of the parliament.  In a nutshell: sit on the sideline 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 that has not proven successful in other instances.

At the same time, this strategy assumes that the opposition parties are constantly organized and ready for each campaign cycle. Executing an elections boycott does not achieve the goal of getting the contested party out of power. The task is to organize the voice and votes, not to organize 'non-voting'.

Since 2010, election boycotts continue to fare poorly. Algeria's and Libya's 2014 elections witnessed both a voter and party boycott.
  • Algeria: Six parties boycotted because they feared vote tampering would occur to guarantee the incumbent's win. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, the incumbent (Abdel Aziz Bouteflika) won with even less opposition.
  • Libya: 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.

None of the cases boycott parties brought about a party to party negotiation, as illustrated in South Africa's 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"?

Voice Via Voting
Reflecting back to 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.