17 February 2013

Ethiopia: No Impact From Minor Boycotts


Unfortunately, Addis Abeba, the political capital of the African continent, has been unable to establish the capacity to hold democratic elections in the past two decades, much like other countries within the continent. This is so despite a number of ambitious attempts.

The City which has made consistent efforts to hold a democratic election will be conducting another one in a few months time. Yet, nothing has improved in the components needed for a democratic election and thus I expect that the upcoming election will not be a democratic one.

Apparently, the result of the local election seems to be in favour of the incumbent party, irrespective of the threat to boycott by current opposition parties.

Election boycotting is a situation in which a political party or faction, that is legally allowed to contest in elections, makes a decision to organise active non-participation by members and followers in the elections.

Across the world, election boycotts have been a common occurrence since 1990. This is particularly true in unconsolidated democracies, particularly in the developing world, with prominent examples from recent years being Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia. Election boycotts have occurred in some form in 13pc of elections across the world and in 16pc of elections in the developing world.

Even if they are contested, many elections today are still accompanied with the threat of boycotting by some parties. What remains unanswered is whether or not election boycotts actually work.

Can a political party achieve success by overtly avoiding competition in national elections or do boycotts simply break down the electoral process, and with it, the hopes for regime change and democracy?

Every election boycott does not have similar impacts. Election boycotts in Ethiopia by the political opposition are considered a minor boycott, they are often associated with small parties that do not have a strong voter base in the entire political sphere of the country.

It is largely associated with parties that are unlikely to ever win a significant representation in elections. If at all, a major boycott in Ethiopia would be if the ruling EPRDF party boycotted elections.

The current debates on boycotts are motivated largely by the level of unfairness of an electoral process, in which opposition parties believe they cannot win, despite the popularity they claim to have. An alternative explanation for boycotting elections in Ethiopia may be to mask the political weakness of the opposition parties. In the latter case, a weak party will avoid contesting in an election in order to appear stronger through the organisation of a boycott rather than facing certain defeat in elections, whether fair or unfair.

One of the logical and immediate outcomes of a boycott is a noticeable reduction in turnout. This comes from the understanding that if major opposition parties instruct their followers to avoid the polls, there will clearly be a lower turnout as a direct effect of the boycott.

But, since boycotts by the opposition are considered minor, without a strong popular base, they would not have this impact. Due to their small size and influence, the parties would not be able to prevent legitimacy for the elections. Similarly, electoral violence, the other short term effect of boycotts, would have no place in Ethiopian elections as the parties hardly have the trust of the public.

Some researchers, who analyse election boycotts in Africa, argue that they are less optimistic about election boycotts. They show that in African elections, opposition participation and concession in elections that are not considered free and fair more often lead to gradual democratisation than would boycotting or rejecting the outcome, in the same situation.

More generally, they contend that participation in the electoral process leads to a greater increase in the level of democratisation by increasing the level of civil liberties, particularly when coupled with external influences. Power is not turned over during elections, and if their goal is democratisation, the results of lower turnouts and increased violence do not favour the construction of a robust democracy.

Boycotts by the Ethiopian opposition, which do not involve a large portion of unorganised political parties, should not be considered an influential part of the electoral game. Rather, they should be seen as another form of general political protest. Because of this, it is not surprising that there is no indication of any clear effect of minor boycotts on the improvement of the election processes.

Instead, the participation of opposition parties in local elections will aid the consolidation of democracy in Ethiopia, and provide opposition parties with experience.

 Tagel Getahun Is an Advocate in Law.

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