In spite of the ever increasing political repression by the ruling party, one of the major party in Ethiopia, the Unit for Democracy and Justice party (Andinet) has recently announced that it will participate in the up-coming 2007 election. The UDJ’s decision has attracted some criticism from some corners, mostly in the Diaspora. Sisay Agena a reporter from ESAT, public questioned the decision of the UDJ stating that what benefit can the UDJ get by participating in the election, where the regime controls entirely the election administration process.
UDJ officials are challenging those critics asking them to explain the benefits of boycotting the election over participation. They stated that serious deliberations and debates were done within the party, the benefits and disadvantages were carefully and analyzed , reached to a common understanding that it was boycotting the election that will damage the party as well as the struggle rather than participating in it. Based not on emotion but reason, party officials argue that decision was made to participate in the upcoming 2007 election.
It seems international experts and the Brooking Institute agree with the assessment of the UDJ.
The Brooking Institute made some studies on many election out comes all over the world. On its report entitled “ Threaten But Participate: Why Election Boycotts are a Bad Idea”, numerous examples are listed. Here are some excerpts from the report:
PLACES WHERE BOYCOTTS FAILED
Of the 171 cases examined for this study, a small minority (roughly four percent) resulted in positive outcomes for the boycotting parties. These cases fell into two very different categories: cases where the opposition party had considerable popular support and the boycott was merely one piece of a larger opposition campaign that could mobilize street protests, strikes and other forms of civil unrest, and cases where electoral laws required quorums to proceed. There have been successes in both categories, but the former cases bring the risk of military intervention while the latter cases risk blowback to the boycotting party for being obstructionist.
1. In Ethiopia, opposition parties boycotted the 1994 parliamentary elections despite appeals from aid donors and Ethiopia’s allies in the west. The ruling Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front won a landslide victory, taking 484 of 547 seats in an election that was quickly recognized and supported by the United States.
2. The Ghanaian opposition decided to boycott the 1992 parliamentary elections to protest the reelection of Jerry Rawlings as president earlier that year in what was referred to as the “Stolen Verdict.” They wanted a fresh presidential election and 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 2001, and his party took 189 of 200 parliamentary seats in the 1992 election thanks to the ill-advised boycott.
3. The opposition in Mali boycotted the 1997 general elections, claiming that the government of Alpha Oumar 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 ten percent in the election, the United States recognized the results, with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright later referring to Mali as a relative bastion of democracy in West Africa.
4. Similarly, the Azerbaijani opposition boycotted the 2003 presidential elections claiming election irregularities, leading to a convincing win for Ilham Aliyev, the son of longtime president Heydar Aliyev. Despite the boycott and weeks of post-election protests, the United States recognized the result of the election
5. In 1996, the Zambian opposition United National Independence Party (UNIP), headed by Kenneth Kuanda,decided to boycottthe general elections. The UNIP claimied that the government of Frederick Chiluba—who defeated Kuanda in the 1991 election after leveraging a threatened boycott to change the electoral system—was using improper electoral registration lists. The decision was met with less than universal approval, especially from the 26 existing UNIP MPs, who would not be allowed to stand for their own seats in the election. Chiluba was easily re-elected, his party took 125 of 157 parliamentary seats, giving him a supermajority for the first time, and the boycott “pushed the UNIP to the verge of political extinction,” from which it has yet torecover.
6. Similarly, the United Democratic Party (UDP) in Gambia fell into complete disarray after boycotting the 2002 parliamentary elections over claims of irregularity in the 2001 presidential campaign. As a result, the ruling party won nearly two thirds of the legislative races unopposed and ended up with 50 of the 53 overall seats
7. The 2004 boycotts of regional elections gave Chavistas 20 of 22 governorships nationwide. In 2005, four leading opposition parties, which held 41 Congressional seats at the time, decided to boycott in protest of Chavez’s heavyhanded rule, leading to a governmental sweep of all seats. As a result, Chavez had the backing to pass new legislation to strengthen his powers, including the removal of presidential term limits, and he has since won additional electoral contests
8. In Togo, the opposition party Union of Forces for Change boycotted the 2002 parliamentary elections in protest of unfair election laws. As a result of the boycott, the ruling Rally of the Togolese People party won 90 percent of the seats in the elections and used its supermajority to change the constitution to remove presidential term limits. President Gnassingbe Eyadema also was able to pass two controversial amendments to ease the eventual transition of power to his son.
9. In 2000, the Basque ETA militant group and its political wing called for a boycott of the elections. Low turnout in Basque areas probably helped enable the election of Jose Maria Aznar to the position of prime minister. Aznar, whose party was the biggest adversary of Basque nationalism, was the first Conservative Prime Minister in Spain since Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s death in 1975.
10. In 2005, the Tamil Tigers called for a boycott of the Sri Lankan election as part of their demands for greater autonomy. They enforced the boycott through violent coercion, greatly limiting turnout in Tamil-dominated areas. As a result, Ranil Wickramasinghe, who was more sympathetic to the Tamil cause, was narrowly defeated by hardliner Mahindra Rajapakse. Following the election, the hardline government took a tougher stance against the Tamil Tigers, setting in place operations that would result in the eventual defeat of the militant group.
11. The opposition to Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe also fractured over boycott discussions in 2005. That year, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) lost 16 seats in the parliamentary elections—in part because dithering over a possible boycott kept MDC registration numbers down. Following that setback, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangarai made the fateful decision to boycott the elections for the newly-created Senate, claiming that this body would be a rubber stamp for Mugabe. Not surprisingly, this created tension within the MDC as a sizable faction believed that choosing not to participate would be a fateful error. The party splintered, Tsvangarai lost his mandate, and the ruling ZANU-PF party captured 49 of 66 seats in the Senate election against the fractured opposition. Tsvangarai was able to patch things up by choosing to participate in the 2008 elections—resulting in near-parity in seats between the ZANU-PF and the MDC.
(The 1994 election boycott in Ethiopia was only mentioned in the report. However elections were boycotted by the oppositions in 2007, the time Kuma Demekssa became Addis Ababa Mayor, in 2012 , this time putting in office Deriba Kuma. In all these cases, the boycotts had benefited only the ruling party)
PLACES WHERE BOYCOTTS WORKED
There are few cases where boycott of the election brought some positive results. In all cases, for the boycott to work two conditions must have been met: a considerable public support, a strong international support for the boycott and a massive preparation to follow up a general mobilization of street protest and general strikes.
1. In Bangladesh, the opposition Awami League and its allies decided to boycott the February 1996 parliamentary election, demanding that Prime Minister Khaleda Zia resign. The boycott call was accompanied by mass protests and general strikes, which basically shut the country down two days before the election. Facing no opposition, Zia’s BNP took 205 of 207 seats in an election with exceptionally low turnout. However, continuedprotests and strikes led Zia to agree grudgingly to another set of elections, to be held under a caretaker government two months later. This time, Awami chose to participate and earned 147 of 299 seats (compared to 116 for the BNP) in the new voting.
2. In 2000, after years of ruling Peru by undermining democratic institutions, it appeared that incumbent President Alberto Fujimori had finally met his match in charismatic opposition leader Alejandro Toledo. Despite leading in the polls, Toledo lost to Fujimori in the first round of an election marred by claims of massive fraud. Since Fujimori didn’t cross the 50 percent threshold, a second round was required, but Toledo chose to boycott to protest both the fraudulent first round and the lack of objectivity of the electoral commission. Without opposition, Fujimori triumphed easily in the runoff, but Toledo claimed that “the president can declare himself the winner, but his government will lack credibility and legitimacy.” Toledo then pulled upon his reservoir of support, tapping into the anger at Fujimori’s fraud to organize massive peaceful demonstrations to protest the election results. The international community, led by the Organization of American States, also played a supporting role in this case by refusing to validate Fujimori’s elections and spearheading an electoral observation mission. The ongoing pressure resulted in Fujimori’s sudden decision to resign six months later under allegations of corruption. An interim government oversaw new elections in 2001, and Toledo defeated Alan Garcia to become the new Peruvian president. As with Bangladesh, the boycott was just one piece of the puzzle; the ability to mobilize strong anti-governmental support was the key factor in the eventual regime change.
3. In 2006, embattled Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra called for parliamentary elections to be held within 60 days, three years ahead of schedule, as a way to break a governmental impasse. The opposition, angered that Thaksin was planning to use these elections as a makeshift referendum, protested and chose to boycott despite holding 96 of 500 seats. Thanks to the boycott, Thaksin’s party won 458 seats in the election, but as in Bangladesh and Peru, popular support was on the side of the opposition.
Massive protests and demonstrations led to Thaksin’s decision to step down two days after the elections. The courts then nullified the elections and called for new elections to be held under the control of a caretaker government. But even the Bangladesh and Thailand cases were not clear-cut victories, as post-boycott events served to move both countries away from democracy
The questions then for the Ethiopia political pundits is whether a boycott of the election will have international support and will be followed up by massive popular demonstration and strikes. In order for the boycotts to work, prior effort must have been made to organize and mobilize the people.
Regarding the international community, one must understand that their only concern is their interest. Even with the 99.6% EPRDF “victory” the international community has not changed its position on Ethiopia. Therefore, it is being naïve to think that the international community will come to the aid of parties who boycotted the election.
As to having considerable popular support and ability to organize massive protests and strikes, I do not think let alone those small parties who are regional and mostly Addis Ababa based, even the UDJ, with grass root support in all regions, do not have yet this capability. Therefore, it is wise for the UDJ to participate in the election for in the election campaign it will strengthen more its organizational strength and outreach of the people.