Election Boycotts Don’t Work

Matthew Frankel
Matthew Frankel Federal Executive Fellow

November 3, 2009

Stop me if this sounds familiar. In the first round of a prominent presidential election wracked by accusations of fraud, a controversial incumbent receives just less than 50 percent of the vote, leading to a runoff. The opposition candidate, believing that the problems from the first round had not been adequately addressed, decided to withdraw from the runoff, calling it a farce. As a result, the incumbent retained power, but in the words of the challenger, “the president can declare himself the winner, but his government will lack credibility and legitimacy.”

Clearly, that last quote is from Abdullah Abdullah, who suddenly withdrew from the Afghan presidential race last weekend, right? Wrong. The speaker was Alejandro Toledo, referring to the Peruvian elections of 2000, after his withdrawal allowed incumbent Alberto Fujimori to be easily re-elected for a third term. But that’s not the end of the story. Toledo did not go quietly into the night, instead leading a massive civil opposition movement, leading to Fujimori’s resignation six months later on allegations of fraud and corruption. Toledo then defeated Alan Garcia in a 2001 election and became president.

So, does this mean that Abdullah, whose decision ceded the presidency to Karzai unopposed, is now in prime position? Not by a long shot. First of all, Abdullah lacks the levels of popular support willing to challenge the existing government that Toledo had, and the presence of over 80,000 NATO troops – whose top goal is supporting the government and promoting stability – on the ground creates a far less permissive environment for civil disobedience. Corrupt or not, Karzai is still our guy.

Secondly, and more importantly, the Peruvian case is the exception rather than the rule. My independent research and analysis of the more than 100 major electoral boycotts since 1990 indicate that while the threat to boycott almost always yields concessions, the boycott itself is generally disastrous for the boycotting party. Individuals and parties tend to boycott elections in order to protest the policies of the ruling regime with the hopes that voters will choose not to show up, thus rendering the election illegitimate in the eyes of the world. The past 20 years have demonstrated, however, that this result is rarely achieved and the boycotting party often becomes completely detached from the organs of power, setting itself up for further setbacks.

Recent history is rife with ruinous electoral boycotts. In 1992, Lebanese Christians, which at the time controlled one-third of the parliament, decided to boycott parliamentary elections to protest excessive Syrian influence. As a result, Shia Muslims greatly upped their representation – most notably a nascent hardline Muslim group called Lebanese Hizballah, which burst on to the political scene with devastating consequences. The decision of the Serbian opposition to boycott 1997 elections paved the way for the re-election of Slobodan Milosevic, leading to the war in Kosovo. The Iraqi Sunnis are just now recovering from their ill-conceived boycott of the 2005 elections.

Since he doesn’t have the widespread popular support to pose a significant threat from outside the government, Abdullah lost most, if not all, of his leverage by choosing to withdraw from the race. A better strategy would have been to press on with the boycott threat to the end, as history demonstrates that the threat of a boycott in high-profile elections often produces significant concessions. The threatened boycott by Inkatha Freedom Party head Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the historic 1994 elections in South Africa forced Nelson Mandela to make sweeping concessions, including the granting of greater autonomy to Buthelezi’s KwaZulu Natal region. This turned out to be a significant concession when Inkatha trounced Mandela’s ANC in KwaZulu. In the first post-Dayton elections in Bosnia, a threatened Muslim boycott, coupled with international pressure, resulted in the resignation of Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karazdic, now awaiting trial at The Hague for war crimes.

Abdullah may hope to be the next Alejandro Toledo, but he’s much more likely to become the next Kenneth Kuanda, the former head of the leading Zambian oppositionist party, who withdrew from the race before the 1996 elections, resulting in the end of his political career and the virtual extinction of his party.