If this headline reminds you of the 1970 song “War” by Edwin Starr, then you already have your answer: “Absolutely nothing!”
In pseudo-democratic to openly oppressive countries around the world, opposition parties and candidates regularly face a tough choice: Should they take part in elections that they know are a sham? Where they know that they won’t have equal access to press, radio and TV? Where they know that their rallies and speeches might be attacked, their supporters might be beaten or jailed? Where they know that the ballot boxes will be stuffed and no independent election oversight will take place?
My answer is: Yes, they should. They should, in full awareness that they don’t stand a chance of winning. I can already hear the criticism: This will lend legitimacy to a farce. But I disagree. Those who care will be able to distinguish a free and fair election from a bogus one any time. Nobody would seriously rate Russia, Iran or Venezuela as democratic as Germany, Australia or France. And nothing has ever been achieved by boycotting an election.
I am writing this on the eve of the parliamentary elections in Burma where the National League for Democracy of Aung San Suu Kyi decided not to run, but there are other examples that come to mind as well:
- The 2009 presidential election in Afghanistan was widely reported to have been anything but fair. Still, the main contender to President Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah scored 30 % of the total vote and forced a run-off, which would have taken place under enormous international scrutiny, given the stakes the world has in Afghanistan. One week before the run-off election, Dr Abdullah withdrew and President Karzai was automatically declared the winner, of course. What did he achieve by that? Absolutely nothing.
- Morgan Tsvangirai not only had the courage to run against Zimbabwe‘s brutal Robert Mugabe in the 2008 presidential election, but he even came ahead with 48 % versus 43 % against all odds. Yet he decided not to take part in the run-off, citing the (clearly existent) violence against his supporters. What did he achieve? A power-sharing deal with Mugabe as President and Tsvangirai as Prime Minister. Better than nothing, but so far, Mugabe does not stick to many of the agreements of this power-sharing deal. And Tsvangirai only got this deal because he decided not to boycott the first round of the election, nor the parliamentary election.
- In the 2005 parliamentary elections in Venezuela, five opposition parties withdrew at almost the last minute. What did they achieve? Absolutely nothing. The boycott made matters even worse, because President Chávez’ party won a two-thirds majority, enabling it to change the constitution.
And then there are other case studies that show the effects of opposition candidacies in the face of insurmountable obstacles:
- In 2010, Venezuela‘s opposition vowed not to repeat the mistake of 2005 and participated in the parliamentary election, not an easy feat in a country where most independent media has been shut down. What did they achieve? With 47 %, the opposition this time came very close to the ruling party (48 %). The ruling PSUV still gained the majority of the seats but lost its two-thirds majority, stripping it of the possibility to change the constitution.
- The presidential election in Iran in 2009 was neither free nor fair. Out of 476 candidates, the Guardian Council only allowed 4 candidates to run. The two more reformist candidates, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi were hampered in their campaigns, there was no free press or independent broadcast media, no independent election observers and many indications for widespread election fraud on behalf of sitting President Ahmadinejad‘s government. What did the opposition candidates achieve? On the face of it, nothing: Ahmadinejad was re-“elected”. But the reformists’ campaign brought to life and to the streets the pent-up discontent with Iran’s political system, leading to the largest and longest protests Iran had seen in decades. While this “Green Movement” ran out of steam a year later under continued brutal government crackdowns that included the killing of protesters, I still hope that something was begun in Iran in the summer of 2009 that cannot be undone. If nothing else, it demonstrated to the rest of the world that Iranians are not united behind the present government, and that therefore the active support of opposition groups might be a better strategy of dealing with Iran than a possible military intervention.
The lesson is clear: If you want to achieve something, even if it is only international awareness (which unfortunately only rarely leads to international action), you have to take part in elections, as unfair as they are and as tough as it may be. The strategy to draw attention to a lack of democracy by abstaining from the race backfires because where nothing happens, there won’t be any attention. Also, if even opposition politicians don’t dare to stand up against the government, how do you expect the people to rally for change? – I know it’s easy to say that, sitting in the comfort of the capital of the mother of all democracies, but I think I have shown that I am willing to risk something for democracy.