The Egyptian opposition’s decision to boycott parliamentary elections looks familiar to those of us who study Latin America, where high profile boycotts have periodically been used by parties who distrust the government in charge of administering those elections. Unfortunately for the Egyptian opposition, the Latin American experience should be seen as a cautionary tale, since boycotts have too often turned into self-inflicted political wounds. The opposition is choosing not to act as a legislative brake on the executive, thereby reducing its own political influence.
Whether in the Middle East, Latin America, or elsewhere, this is the basic scenario. A controversial regime in a politically divided country holds elections and opposition parties must decide whether to participate or withdraw. Both choices require a difficult cost-benefit calculation.
Participation entails giving some measure of legitimacy to the government’s electoral process. The potential payoff — such as winning a plebiscite or gaining a large number of legislative seats — can be significant. A key risk, however, is losing the election while simultaneously giving the regime its desired aura of legitimacy. That risk may be mitigated if the regime clearly employs fraud.
Withdrawing is intended to delegitimize the government internationally, thus forcing it to compromise in some manner that bolsters democracy. In legislative elections it also necessarily involves losing any legislative counterweight to executive power, and for presidential elections it means ceding the presidency to the regime.
There is a useful parallel between the current Egyptian case and the Venezuelan legislative elections of 2005. President Hugo Chávez took office in 1999, and in 2002 was overthrown briefly, then returned to power. The country was deeply polarized, and the opposition bickered with the government about the fairness of the electoral process. Just a few days before the election, a majority of opposition parties withdrew.
The result was that Chavista parties won an overwhelming majority of seats, and so for the next five years Chávez passed virtually anything he wanted. Since constitutional reform requires a two-thirds vote, the boycott also eventually helped pave the way for Chávez to remove term limits. The traditional parties that spearheaded the boycotting debacle, such as Democratic Action and COPEI (Political Electoral Independent Organization Committee), saw their political fortunes continue on their steep downward trajectory. The European Union’s electoral observer mission noted dryly that "a more constructive and mature effort is required by all political forces."
In sum, Venezuela is not a constructive model to be followed in terms of achieving political goals in a polarized election. There are other prominent Latin American cases, involving various types of elections, which should also give parties pause before committing to non-participation.
In 1988, the Chilean dictatorship held a referendum on Augusto Pinochet’s continuation in power. After internal debate about how fair it would be, most of the opposition decided to participate, with the Communist Party rejecting elections and calling for armed uprising. At the time, Socialist leader Heraldo Muñoz (later cabinet minister and ambassador to the United Nations) published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. He laid out all the options and concluded that the "preferred alternative for those who want a return to democracy is to mobilize actively in order to defeat Pinochet at his own game."
He was right. Pinochet ultimately lost the referendum. A presidential election was held the following year and the opposition won. Meanwhile, the Communist Party struggled for years to win seats and never regained the political influence it once enjoyed. A broader boycott would have guaranteed that Pinochet remain in the presidency until 1997.
In 1984, the Nicaraguan opposition did not participate in the presidential and legislative elections that kept Sandinista Daniel Ortega in office. In that instance, the U.S. government pressured the conservative parties to avoid any legitimation of a "Soviet-style sham election." When the dust settled, Ortega was president for another six years and the opposition had no role in governing or writing the new constitution (which is still in place today). Its influence instead came in the form of covert operations.
There is one Latin American case of a successful boycott, but it tends to prove the rule. In 2000, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori had been in power 10 years and his approval rating was slipping under the weight of corruption and abuse of power charges. Alejandro Toledo ran against Fujimori, and many polling agencies predicted his victory. When the results showed neither had received a majority amidst widespread perception of fraud, Toledo refused to participate in a second round and called for Peruvians not to vote. That gave Fujimori the presidency, but it was short-lived. After massive demonstrations and revelations about more corruption, Fujimori fled the country four months later. The boycott was thus just one part of a much broader political strategy.
In Egypt, the National Salvation Front is taking an understandable but risky stand. Telling President Mohamed Morsi to "dialogue with himself" carries with it the real possibility of fostering political self-isolation. If the coalition chooses not to run any candidates, then the government will win a large majority of seats, Morsi will have free rein to quickly pass legislation as he sees fit, and the Muslim Brotherhood will consolidate power even more. If it participates, it will be in a much better position as a legislative opposition to prevent reforms it deems undesirable.
Gregory Weeks is professor and chair of the department of political science & public administration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He blogs about Latin American politics at Two Weeks Notice.