The boycott blunder


Egypt has been governed for 29 years by President Hosni Mubarak, and a state of emergency limiting civil liberties has been in effect for that entire time. The most popular opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, is banned and its candidates must run as independents. Egyptian political analysts expect that the government will manipulate this fall’s parliamentary elections, as it has in the past, to guarantee the ruling National Democratic Party another sweeping majority. Against this backdrop, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei has called for a boycott of the elections unless electoral reforms are implemented first. “If nobody but the national party runs, then the regime will have to give in to us,” ElBaradei said. A boycott, he added on Twitter, would “unmask sham ‘democracy.’ Participation wld. be contrary to the national will.”

With that, ElBaradei has stepped into a longstanding debate about whether participating in unfair elections allows opposition groups to push the boundaries of freedom, or whether it simply legitimizes undemocratic regimes by offering the appearance of pluralism. Egypt is hardly alone in pondering this dilemma. Iraq’s Sunni parties boycotted the U.S.-backed parliamentary elections in January 2005, then decided they had made a strategic blunder and participated in subsequent votes. Earlier this year, Burundi’s main opposition parties boycotted a presidential election over allegations of massive fraud, delivering a second five-year term to the unopposed incumbent, President Pierre Nkurunziza.Around the globe in Myanmar, also known as Burma, the military junta that has governed for 20 years is scheduled to hold its first parliamentary elections on Nov. 7 amid charges of foul play. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from running and her party is boycotting, although a splinter group has decided to run.

A true democratic process depends on the participation of its citizens. The question for opposition movements in these countries and many others is whether it’s possible to build democracy by withholding citizen participation. The argument of those supporting a boycott in Egypt is that they have tried taking part in electoral politics for decades but have failed to pry open the system; they see a boycott as a kind of last resort, or “the least bad option available.” Some Burmese activists make the opposite argument in Myanmar: that two decades of boycotts have not loosened the military’s grip on power and that participation may prove more effective.

In fact, a closer look at scores of election boycotts in recent decades suggests that they rarely lead to democratization. Rather, parties that choose to sit out the elections usually are weakened, while rulers are returned to office with greater majorities in the legislature and with more entrenched power. Participation by opposition parties, on the other hand, can sometimes lead to dramatic results, as it did in the Philippines, where President Corazon Aquino’s “people power” revolution toppled strongman Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, or in the so-called color revolutions of Eastern Europe in the early 2000s. In these cases, authoritarian regimes were dislodged by massive street demonstrations protesting stolen elections.

Of course, that’s not necessarily the outcome. The Iranian reform movement fielded a candidate in last year’s presidential election but lost to incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and took to the streets to protest fraud. The largest demonstrations in 30 years of Islamic rule were brutally quashed and the opposition has been suppressed, yet many reformists believe the vote was valuable for exposing political dissent and government thuggery to the world.

Some elections experts argue that although boycotts don’t generally work, the serious threat of a boycott can sometimes force a government to even the playing field, and that may be ElBaradei’s calculation in Egypt. His National Front for Change has collected more than 700,000 signatures on its petition for electoral reform, thanks to help from the Muslim Brotherhood. ElBaradei, a secular Muslim and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has international stature; it would be difficult for the government to jail him, as it did human rights activist and liberal El Ghad party leader Ayman Nour for four years. It’s good that ElBaradei is using his prestige to push or, if necessary, try to embarrass Mubarak into holding free and fair elections.

That said, actually boycotting the election would be a mistake. The opposition is divided; the Muslim Brotherhood, whose “independent” members currently hold about a fifth of the seats in parliament, has not signed on to a boycott (and certainly, a partial boycott never works). But beyond that, parliamentary elections are a time to build grass-roots support. ElBaradei would do better to draw Egyptians out of a state of political apathy and resignation, and to help elect opposition members to parliament, where they would have a higher profile and some immunity to push for more reforms. He needs to grow his own political base and boost his street credibility if he wants to run for president in next year’s election, as has been suggested, and that is best done through organizing. If the elections are stolen, he and the rest of the opposition should use their collective voice to protest.

This is a pivotal moment in Egyptian politics. At age 82, Mubarak may be mulling a sixth six-year term — he hasn’t said — or he may be hoping to hand power to his son. Either way, he isn’t going to be in power for long, and succession is not guaranteed. The parliamentary elections are an opportunity to prepare the ground for next year’s crucial contests. The opposition should participate — not boycott.