Egypt’s Opposition Voters Would Be Unwise to Boycott the Election

< back to Freedom At Issue Blog

By: Mehrunisa Qayyum, Guest Blogger

“Humanity has not discovered anything better
for representation than elections.”
—Mona Anis,
The Square

In most elections, the voters’ central dilemma is deciding whether to vote for candidate A, B, or C. However, in Egypt’s upcoming May 26–27 presidential election, citizens and organizing blocs are understandably asking themselves whether to vote at all.

Why Boycott Elections?

A number of factors can motivate parties and voters to abstain from elections. One, which certainly applies to Egypt, is concern about ballot secrecy and the potential for reprisals. Depending on how secure the voting procedures are, voters may worry that casting their ballots for anyone other than the government’s choice may bring punishment, either to them personally or to communities that produce strong antigovernment votes. Given the Egyptian authorities’ harsh repression of opposition views to date, including during the constitutional referendum in January, these fears seem well grounded.

A second argument for employing the boycott strategy is that it could highlight flaws in the electoral process that would result in the underrepresentation of minorities. A boycott by marginalized groups may draw international attention, signaling to human rights organizations that the elections are not inclusive and thereby delegitimizing the results.

A third reason to boycott elections is to avoid a false or unpalatable choice. During the 2012 presidential runoff election in Egypt, for example, most citizens felt that choosing between the Mubarak henchman Ahmed Shafiq and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was like choosing between Scylla and Charybdis—either one would bring disaster to Egypt. Consequently, turnout for the runoff was even lower than the 46 percent that participated in the first round of voting. The upcoming presidential vote also offers limited options. The only registered candidates are de facto military ruler Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and Hamdeen Sabbahi, a Nasserist politician with virtually no chance of winning.

What Success Looks Like

One prominent instance in which a boycott strategy was successful occurred in South Africa in 1994. These were the first elections after the fall of apartheid, and Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) party was poised to win due to its central role in the struggle for democracy. Yet the ANC’s popular support meant that other groups could be sidelined, which worried the opposition. For example, Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Inkatha Freedom Party stood little chance winning outside of KwaZulu-Natal, the homeland of his Zulu ethnic group. To secure concessions, he threatened a boycott, leveraging the intense domestic and international interest in ensuring fully representative and inclusive elections. After negotiating a change to the voting system and greater regional autonomy, Inkatha ultimately participated in the elections, emerging as the third-largest force nationally and the governing party in its home province.

The Likelihood of Failure

Although a boycott strategy worked in the South African example, the evidence shows that such successes are exceedingly rare. A 2010 study by Matthew Frankel of the Brookings Institution found that boycotts paid off in just 4 percent of the 171 cases examined between 1990 and 2009. Frankel concluded that the threat of a boycott can be effective when there is strong domestic and international pressure to ensure that elections are fully representative, but that in most circumstances the strategy will backfire.

The consequences of a boycott are especially dire when the opposition is incapable of actually blocking the elections from proceeding, either through crippling street protests or rules requiring a certain turnout for the vote to be valid. For example, in Venezuela’s 2005 legislative elections, an opposition boycott—motivated in part by concerns about ballot secrecy—helped reduce the turnout rate to just 25 percent, but progovernment lawmakers then monopolized the new National Assembly and helped President Hugo Chávez push through radical policy initiatives. By contrast, high opposition participation in a 2007 constitutional referendum helped defeat a controversial package of amendments sought by Chávez, including the removal of presidential term limits.

Another weakness of the boycott strategy is that it allows the opposition’s campaign machinery to go idle and corrode, making it all the more difficult to reactivate for the next cycle of elections. For example, in Iraq’s January 2005 elections, a concerted Sunni boycott amounted to a “strategic blunder,” according to Frankel, because Sunnis won only 5 of 275 parliamentary seats. In the short term, this meant that Sunnis relinquished their veto power during the drafting process for a new constitution. But in the longer term, the groups that boycotted had to redouble their efforts to mobilize their voter base and win representation in the December 2005 elections.

More recent cases reinforce Frankel’s finding that boycotts are almost always counterproductive. In March 2014, Libya’s ethnic Amazigh minority decided to boycott elections for a 60-seat Constituent Assembly, leaving the two seats designated for the Amazigh empty and the community itself without a voice in the drafting of a new constitution.

Likewise, in Algeria’s April 2014 presidential vote, six parties boycotted because they feared that vote tampering would guarantee the incumbent’s victory. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika easily won a fourth term.

Frankel’s study and the recent cases show that executing an election boycott does not force the ruling party from power, and in the absence of serious negotiations as well as strong societal and international pressure, the threat of a boycott is unlikely to win concessions from the government. Instead, such tactics tend to encourage apathy and resignation among opposition voters. In the cases listed above, it would have been better for opposition or minority groups to invest their energy in organizing an election campaign, mobilizing their supporters, building up their political prowess for future contests, and making any fraud or repression by the authorities that much more difficult and obvious to the world.

Egypt’s Choice

There is little time left to organize a proper campaign for Egypt’s presidential election, and little reason to expect that the authorities would allow one. But citizens still have a chance to vote and be in a better position to hold the winner accountable if he does not satisfy the electorate. Moreover, with protests violently suppressed and the media tightly controlled, the election offers a rare opportunity to remind the leadership and the world that the opposition still exists in large numbers, and cannot simply be jailed or ignored. A large opposition turnout could have an important influence on conditions surrounding parliamentary elections later in the year. It would give opposition factions an incentive to organize themselves and produce better candidates, as well as leverage with which to extract concessions from the authorities. Those may be modest goals given the events of the past year, but a boycott would achieve even less.

Mehrunisa Qayyum is an international development and policy consultant and the founder of PITAPOLICY Consulting.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

Share this story