On the face of it, it’s easy to support the courageous decision of the beleaguered Burmese opposition to boycott upcoming parliamentary elections in Myanmar (formerly Burma), even though the decision led to the dissolution of its National League for Democracy party. The elections are the first to be held since 1990, when the repressive military junta took control and renamed the country. A new law bars prisoners from being members of political parties, so the opposition decided to fold its tent rather than jettison incarcerated opposition icon and party co-founder Aung San Suu Kyi. Better to dissolve in protest than legitimize the ruling regime is the opposition’s view.
For opposition parties facing authoritarian regimes, the choice of whether to participate in or boycott an election is akin to deciding whether to hit or stand in blackjack when holding 16 against a face card; neither option is likely to end in success. That said, recent history demonstrates that by choosing to boycott, the opposition has chosen the wrong path. My analysis of 171 threatened and actual electoral boycotts since 1990 found that they are not an effective method to bring about favorable governmental change. In fact, more often than not, they serve to further entrench the ruling party.
The other major negative outcome of electoral boycotts is the marginalization of the boycotting party, and this is doubly true in this case. Not only has the NLD forgone parliamentary participation, it now has ceased to exist. Although a new splinter party has emerged examples such as Cameroon, Gambia, Venezuela and Zambia suggest that the chances of the opposition regaining its previous relevance are minimal. Elements of the party still insist they will contest the election under a new name, but even Suu Kyi has publicly criticized the new party and strengthened her call for a boycott.
The Burmese opposition — like most aggrieved opposition parties — is gambling that its action will energize the international community to step up the pressure on the ruling regime. NLD executive committee member and co-founder U Win Tin wrote an impassioned plea in the Washington Post in March asking the world to support the boycott and reject the elections. The problem with this strategy is that outside forces rarely make a difference in these cases, especially in low-profile locations like Myanmar. For example, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright referred to Mali as a relative bastion of democracy in Western Africa just 18 months after a controversial and widely boycotted election in the late 1990s, and the U.S. quickly recognized the results of the 2003 presidential elections in Azerbaijan despite an opposition boycott and weeks of postelection protests.
It is also unclear how much more pressure the West can put on the ruling junta. The Myanmar government is already a world pariah and has weathered ongoing sanctions. A recent U.S. Senate resolution calling for the junta to release Suu Kyi, while noble, is unlikely to have the government quaking in its boots. The regime has marketed these elections as the first step toward democracy, making it harder for the international community to take a strong stand.
In the rare cases in which electoral boycotts resulted in positive outcomes, the drivers were almost entirely internal and occurred in existing democracies, not under authoritarian regimes. The clearest victory for a boycotting opposition party was in Peru in 2000-01, when the opposition was able to mobilize massive popular protests and strikes, in addition to the boycott, to hasten the demise of the Alberto Fujimori regime. International pressure played at most a minor role.
The best course of action for the opposition is to participate in this year’s elections, even without Suu Kyi. The newly created National Democratic Force, which plans to participate, should be supported. Even if the system is skewed toward the junta, a unified opposition — which won 392 seats in the 1990 election before it was annulled by the military — probably would still earn a considerable stake in the parliament.
Zimbabwe might be a useful parallel here. The opposition chose to boycott the 1995 election to protest President Robert Mugabe’s unfair practices, leading to a near-sweep by the ruling party. Having learned its lesson, the opposition participated in the 2000 elections and won 57 seats, just five fewer than the ruling party.
This is not to say that opposition participation in the election will result in a more democratic or more open Myanmar, but it is still better than the alternative.