It’s obvious NASA’s dominant decision to boycott the presidential re-run elections on October 26, 2017 is part of a long-held playbook deployed by Opposition political parties especially in transitional democracies.
Whereas NASA has been reluctant to characterise their “no reform, no election” mantra as a boycott, a closer look at the core messages by the coalition leads to the conclusion that the call represents nothing more than a call to its supporters to withhold their participation in the repeat election.
A 2010 study by the Brookings Institute (a leading Washington DC think tank), Threaten but Participate: Why Election Boycotts Are a Bad Idea, assessed at least 171 threatened and actual election boycotts at the national level between 1990 and 2009, and established that rarely do boycotts achieve the results desired by Opposition movements.
In fact, a review of some of the attempts at using boycotts for political ends in Africa are quite revealing.
In Ethiopia, Opposition parties boycotted the 1994 parliamentary elections despite appeals from development partners. The ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front won with a landslide victory, taking 484 of 547 seats in an election that was quickly recognized and supported by the United States and the UK.
Similarly, when the Ghanaian Opposition decided to boycott the 1992 parliamentary elections to protest the re-election of Jerry Rawlings as president in what was referred to as the “Stolen Verdict” and demanded a fresh presidential election they assumed that the international attention from the boycott would garner enough condemnation to make it happen.
As it turned out, the Opposition was wrong on all counts. No new election was held, Rawlings remained president until 2001and in that 1992 election, his party took 189 of 200 parliamentary seats thanks to the ill-advised boycott.
Comparably, the Opposition in Mali boycotted the 1997 general elections, claiming that the government of Alpha Konare had committed massive fraud.
Konare was easily re-elected and his ruling party took 123 of 147 seats in the Legislature. Although there were claims of irregularities and a reported turnout of less than 10 per cent in the election, the United States recognised the results, with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright later referring to Mali as a relative bastion of democracy in West Africa.
A rather positive outcome from the deployment of politics of boycott was witnessed in South Africa. While it was clear that Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) would gain a decisive majority in the 1999 election, Mandela was under both domestic and international pressure to ensure that the elections were fully representative.
However, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the Zulu head of the Inkatha Party and a leading figure of the KwaZulu Natal region of South Africa, fearing ANC repression wanted KwaZulu recognized as a separate homeland, and threatened a boycott to achieve his demands.
While Buthelezi didn’t gain an independent homeland, he did receive two significant concessions. The first was the removal of a single ballot system, which would have treated all votes the same, regardless of where they were cast.
And the second was the authorization of a constitutional change to give more regional autonomy to KwaZulu Natal. Buoyed by these gains, Buthelezi chose to participate, instantaneously reaping the benefits of these concessions.
Although Inkatha only received 6.2 per cent of the vote nationwide, it handily defeated the ANC within KwaZulu, giving Buthelezi considerable power. Whereas an actual boycott would probably have spelled the end for Buthelezi, leveraging the boycott threat earned him a prominent position in the post-apartheid South Africa.
What should these examples instruct NASA and Raila Odinga in their boycott campaign? First, it should be clear that boycott will not necessarily engender positive outcome for the Opposition.
Not only does the literature show possible diminution of the strength of an Opposition party in this circumstance, but that its impact may lead to the fracturing of the Opposition.
This happened both in the Zambian and Zimbabwe Opposition movements. Though threatened boycotts leveraged by the Inkatha party secured some concessions, Buthelezi’s place in South Africa’s political order was only tenable after he reversed an earlier decision and proceeded with participation in the 1999 elections.
It is instructive that, already the decision to boycott the repeat presidential election has cost the ODM and NASA some of its’ key players, a clear demonstration of some of the negative impacts that the boycott campaigns could trigger.
Hon. Raila and NASA should therefore learn from history, and abandon their boycott of election of October 26. Their non-participation while having diminutive impact on the democratic journey of the country, may bring a sudden halt to opposition politics; undermining the very democratic gains they purport to be fighting for.
(Dr Sing’Oei is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya and a Legal Advisor, Executive office of the Deputy President)