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BOYCOTTING ELECTIONS STILL AN OPTION?

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A reporter for The Associated Press in Bangkok, Thailand, once posed a question about the role of election boycotts in a democracy after Thailand was faced with a political crisis that led to a popular movement calling for, at first, the resignation of the then prime minister (PM), but then evolved into a boycott of a snap election called by under-fire PM.

The question was directed to the ACE Electoral Knowledge Network, which presents itself as the world’s largest online community and repository of electoral knowledge, and the purpose was to prepare some articles about the issues at stake. The individual responses were quite interesting. One of them stated: “Election boycotts have no place in a functioning democracy; participation being at the heart of the democratic process. However, boycotts could have a role to play in a democracy that is not functioning as it should be and where fair competition is impossible. The problem lies in determining at what point conditions for a fair election are being violated to such an extent that a boycott is justifiable.

Even if justifiable it should be considered as a last resort. In most cases opposition parties have concluded that participation in the electoral process – even if it is unequal – is more beneficial than boycotting it. Choosing to be outside the electoral process is a highly risky political tactic and can come with high costs.

Both the degree of sympathy and interest in any boycott by the wider electorate is a crucial factor in determining the impact of any boycott. Their impacts are often minimal and can be managed by the incumbent government unless the boycott is accompanied by other measures which hinder ability to govern or there is a minimum voter participation required. Boycotts therefore often impact upon legitimacy but not the final result. There is also a very real danger that resorting to a boycott can have which is a long-term and damaging effect on the democratic process. There is a danger that street protests (as a means to bring about a change in government) are resorted to too easily and become less than exceptional events, thereby undermining the constitutional process.”

Another member of the ACE Practitioners’ Network responded as follows: “A boycott by a section of people is different from a whole majority boycotting the election. If a section is boycotting, we used to ignore the same, as the majority is participating in election process. The right to vote includes the right not to vote. A boycott of the election by a section of people may have political significance, but needs to be ignored unless it is total boycott by people, which cannot be ignored. Here again, this may need to be taken to the Judiciary as in many Constitutions, time limit is prescribed for conducting elections and Election Commissions may not have authority to postpone unless it is provided for in the Constitution/Law. In India, we didn’t have any instance of total boycott, although single party boycott has been there occasionally, which has been ignored.”

One other member drew the conclusion that a boycott could be a legitimate tool under circumstances where the democratic rules of the game were grossly violated and where there seemed to be few other ways to improve the situation. However, the member noted that boycotts have costs, both in terms of being outside the Parliament and channels where it might be possible to mobilise for future elections.  The costs of a boycott, therefore, may be high.

Observed

The member observed that should one use boycott in a situation which is not sufficiently serious, it is more than likely that the sympathy would rather decrease than increase for a democratic opposition.  “It might be difficult to explain such a decision to the domestic public as well as the international community and the purpose may be lost,” the member said and went on to list the following examples and comments from the international community on countries that had gone through election boycotts: “Albania 1996: Albania has had a strong polarisation ever since the first multiparty elections in 1991 and 1992.  Both the two dominant parties have boycotted the parliament at times.  On Election Day in May 1996 the Socialist party (opposition) withdrew from the elections based upon what they assessed as being serious election fraud. 

‘‘After a year of severe unrest new elections were held in 1997 under international supervision. The Socialist Party won and after some time the Democratic Party decided not to participate in the parliament. During the referendum on a new constitution in 1998 the Democratic Party boycotted the vote and the new constitution passed. ‘‘It is difficult to see how the frequent boycotts in Albania have improved the Albanian democracy and political life, despite the clear violations of democratic rules which have also been reported by international observers. “Serbia 1997: The small democratic parties boycotted the elections held in Serbia in 1997.  The background was the efforts made by the Milosevic regime to prevent the opposition winners of the local elections the year before. ‘‘After that, a high profile international effort failed to create improvements to the election law in such a way that all opposition parties found it worthwhile participating.  In 2000 a better organised broad coalition of opposition parties managed to win elections in Yugoslavia.

Effects

The effects of the boycotts in 1997 are difficult to assess, but it is doubtful if they played a very positive role, and in 2000 participation was decided even though the conditions had hardly improved. “Belarus 2000: In Belarus the opposition has participated in elections under extreme circumstances.  The conditions for proposing candidates, running a campaign, observing elections, etc have been increasingly difficult.  The international community found the context of the elections to be so bad that the OSCE decided not to send full observer missions in 2000 and 2001. After that the situation has rather become worse, but the OSCE did observe the elections in 2004 and plan to do the same in 2006 mainly because it is important for the opposition to have witnesses in the country. 

‘‘A boycott of a regime like Lukashenka’s may be easy to defend from a principle point of view but may not be the best strategy for a democratic change in the long run.  The courageous participation of the opposition and the civic society may prove to be a better strategy for a long term change.
“Zimbabwe 2005: In Zimbabwe the opposition did surprisingly well in the 2001 elections. There is no doubt that this encouraged the democratic opposition to an autocratic regime.  In 2002 and 2005 the conditions were still far from equal for the parties competing in elections. 

The government party won sufficient majority in 2005 to change the Constitution and used it to introduce a two-chamber system.  In the fall of 2005 elections to the Senate were held and the main opposition party (MDC) had a damaging internal conflict on the issue of boycott or not.  This led to a split of the party and right now the opposition seems to be weaker than ever in Zimbabwe.  Again it is easy to defend a boycott under the circumstances but to what extent it would be the right strategy – even without the internal conflict – is difficult to assess.”

With the Eswatini 2023 National General Elections having formally commenced this Wednesday with voter registration, it would appear that the voices that are in favour of participating in the election have swallowed those in support of a boycott. The Elections and Boundaries Commission will be hoping that more and more people register and eventually do turn up at the polls. The target being to register 650 000 voters, the EBC knows that every one of these votes will definitely count in making the election as successful as possible. In an election every vote is known to count. The National Geographic published an article titled ‘Why Your Vote Matters’, which articulates how just one vote can be the difference in deciding an election.

Referring to the history of U.S. elections, the articles cites how in 2000, Al Gore narrowly lost the Electoral College vote to George W. Bush. The election came down to a recount in Florida, where Bush had won the popular vote by such a small margin that it triggered an automatic recount and a Supreme Court case (Bush v. Gore). In the end, Bush won Florida by 0.009 per cent of the votes cast in the state, or 537 votes. Had 600 more pro-Gore voters gone to the polls in Florida that November, there may have been an entirely different president from 2000–2008, states the article.
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The article also cites the elections race more recent election race where Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 by securing a close Electoral College win. Although the election did not come down to a handful of votes in one state, Trump’s votes in the Electoral College decided a tight race. Clinton had won the national popular vote by nearly three million votes, but the concentration of Trump voters in key districts in ‘swing’ states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan helped seal enough electoral votes to win the presidency.

The articles emphasises that a person’s vote may not directly elect the winner, but if it joins enough others in your constituency, that vote undoubtedly matters when it comes to the final results. Low turnout, according to the article, means that important local issues are determined by a limited group of voters, making a single vote even more statistically meaningful. It adds that participating in an election is one of the key freedoms one might have, which many people in countries around the world do not have: “ No matter what you believe or whom you support, it is important to exercise your rights.”

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