Matabeleland: Is vote boycott best participation?

Matabeleland has suffered despicable human rights abuses under the ZANU PF regime. We have been delegitimised to such an extent that some of our people are increasingly willing to lose their right to vote rather than be associated with Zimbabwean systems.

Definition

An election boycott is an act of voluntary and intentional abstention from an election by a group of voters. However, it must be noted not all boycott and abstention is voluntary, there are cases where activists have used violence to enforce boycotts and abstentions.

Reasons for calls for election boycotts

There are legitimate concerns about lack of transparency in the administration of elections in Zimbabwe. In the Mthwakazi case, individuals and some pro-Mthwakazi parties are calling for a boycott of elections in order to protest the policies of the ruling regime with the hope that voters will choose not to show up, thus rendering the election illegitimate in the eyes of the world.

A general sense that voting is futile has caused voter apathy due to the continued electoral malpractices which favour the regime. People do not believe Mthwakazi politicians have any voice in the ethnic Shona dominated parliament and cabinet. It is perceived that the Zimbabwean state deprives us of our civil rights, not because we have fewer representatives in parliament, but because they deal with us as a demographic problem.

Some Mthwakazi groups posit the argument that engaging in Zimbabwe’s faulty system legitimises the system and undermines the efforts of our liberation from repression through the development of an alternative that involves all political, social, and economic tools.

What is the political capital of election boycott?

We hope the boycott of the elections is not a self-preservation measure by organisations not keen to submit their weakness to a test by the masses, thus they are preserving their right to political inactivity that makes no difference to anybody.

It is difficult to comprehend how we can build political authority in our territory by wilfully sidelining ourselves and relegating our public voice to ‘non-participant’. The election boycott strategy presents a false option for voters and parties because it throws away a vote and voids the collective voice.

Our view is that if we try and lose, it will not be our fault, but if we do not try and we lose, then it would be all our fault. Boycotting elections poses an existential crisis for us not the ZANU PF regime.

We can argue that Mthwakazi abstaining from voting suits ZANU PF interests more than it does ours — our non-participation does little damage to ZANU PF, but leaves a void that is filled by another national focused party like the MDC whose approach to Mthwakazi issues is not fundamentally different from ZANU PF’s.  

How successful are boycotts of major elections?

By ‘successful’ we mean being able to undermine the public trust of the results sufficiently so the winner could not successfully claim a mandate or take leadership. Available scholarly evidence suggests boycott is a huge gamble with precious little success.  

In his study, “Threaten but Participate: Why Election Boycotts Are a Bad Idea”, Frankel (2010) analysed at least 100 major electoral boycotts between 1990 and 2009. In the 171 cases studied, only 4 percent resulted in positive outcomes.  

Successful boycotts

In South Africa, a threatened boycott by Inkatha Freedom Party head Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the inaugural 1994 elections forced ANC leadership into making a raft of concessions, including the granting of greater autonomy to Buthelezi’s KwaZulu Natal region. In Bosnia, a threatened Muslim boycott and international pressure, resulted in the resignation of Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karazdic.

We note here that in both cases the threat – and not implementation – of the boycott triggered political concessions.

Unsuccessful boycotts

Frankel (2010) argues that while the threat to boycott almost always yields concessions, the boycott itself is generally disastrous for the boycotting party.

Outcomes from electoral boycotts make grime reading. Lebanon’s 1992 election provides an example of a boycott with longer-term implications. Maronite Christians who constituted about one-third of Lebanon’s electorate boycotted electoral participation. Consequently, about 87 percent mostly Christian voters did not vote, a record number of Muslim candidates won unopposed or with nominal challenge. Worse still, the void created by the boycott was filled by Hezbollah.

The Iraqi Sunnis lost control following their ill-conceived boycott of the 2005 January elections. They won only 5 of 275 parliamentary seats and consequently relinquished their veto power during the constitution drafting process that followed.

Libya’s ethnic Amazigh boycotted Libya’s 2014 Constituent Assembly elections. The election went ahead and their designated two seats remain empty with their voice unheard.  

Alternative approaches

Seeing no extensive study has been undertaken to assess public opinion and added to the fact there are limited benefits to election boycott, the boycott option appears unjustified at present. We have as many options as we want to consider, Mthwakazi parties need to objectively analyse all the options and avail them to the masses to make informed decisions.

Arguably, the most reasonable alternative for those who want Mthwakazi to once again control its political destiny is to revert to grassroots activism, mobilise actively in order to stifle the efforts of and defeat main Zimbabwe political parties who resist changes to the way the country is governed.

Conclusion

Election boycotts do not change the status quo. Instead of encouraging apathy, calling for boycotts and abstentions, we should be encouraging increased political participation across the spectrum. Evidence at hand indicates that election boycott alone has very limited positive impact, thus it must be used as one part of a much broader political strategy.

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Published by THE OBSERVER

a political and policy research hub with interest in Mthwakazi human rights, safety and security.

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