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Elections boycott: A survival manual for Zim opposition
06/04/2015 00:00:00
by William Muchayi
No bothered about opposition poll boycott ... President Robert Mugabe

THE political drama that grips the nation never ceases to amaze me. As Zanu PF is engulfed in the fluid succession inferno, logic should have dictated that the political pendulum swings in favour of the opposition as the former liberation movement is on the verge of an acrimonious split. But, alas, even die-hard opposition supporters are astonished by the prevailing narrative from Harvest House in particular that glorifies election boycotts at a moment when Mugabe appears to be more vulnerable than ever before.

In its last Congress, the MDC-T agreed not to contest any elections in the country until some electoral reforms are implemented by the government and this narrative has gained traction with other minor opposition parties. Elen Shiriyedenga, the MDC Director of Elections, recently penned a piece published by several media houses reiterating the party’s position on participation in any forthcoming polls. Indeed, echoing the same sentiments, Job Sikhala, the charismatic MDC-T Executive Member even vowed to quit politics if his party reverses its Congress resolution not to contest any coming elections until the electoral turf has become even for the benefit of dwarfs as well.

It is regrettable that few critics have challenged this narrative and scrutinised its effectiveness as a weapon to fight an entrenched dictatorship. In fact, proponents of this discourse argue that by participating in a flawed electoral contest, the opposition risks legitimising the illegitimate. In addition, the strategy is premised on the flawed assumption that by boycotting polls, Mugabe is tossed onto the ropes and it is this pressure that will force the incumbent to implement reforms that will in turn dislodge him from power.

What a poor strategy for how can the nonagenarian hang himself with his own rope? Added to this school of thought is the belief that the international community, the African Union and SADC included, will exert pressure on the regime and force it to adhere to democratic principles while sympathising with the opposition who are viewed as victims. Not only that, evangelists of the boycott narrative appear to be guided by the flawed misconception  that Mugabe still has some decency left in him to succumb to pressure that will ultimately  force him to implement reforms necessary to create an even electoral playing field.


Historical evidence has proved that election boycotts are a suicidal weapon to fight an entrenched dictatorship and more so in a terrain littered with landmines. In fact, the strategy has never proved to be effective. At best, it can undermine the legitimacy of an election but never alter its outcome. Indeed, it is one thing to undermine Mugabe’s legitimacy and a completely different scenario to unseat the incumbent.

Historical evidence drawn from the Jamaican general elections of 1983, widely believed to be the most successful election boycott in history, with a voter turnout of 2.7% proved inconsequential, for it allowed the ruling party to win all seats in the House of Representatives, with the sitting incumbent retaining his post for another seven years. Across the Middle East in Lebanon, Maronite Christians boycotted the 1992 general elections only to regret the decision later. With 87% of voters not voting (mainly Christians), a record number of ruling party candidates swept into power unopposed and the boycott strategy became a double edged sword.

Up towards the north of Africa in Ethiopia, opposition parties boycotted the 1994 parliamentary elections and the strategy back-fired as the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front romped to victory with a landslide, grabbing 484 of the 547 seats up for grabs. To the far end of West Africa, several Ghanaian opposition parties boycotted the 1992 parliamentary elections, protesting the re-election of the incumbent Jerry Rawlings as president, only to regret as the dictator never budged and, to add salt onto the wound, his party pocketed 189 of the 200 parliamentary seats at stake.

The Cameroonian opposition parties also tested their own medicine in 1997 when they decided to boycott presidential elections which the incumbent Paul Biya won with a landslide, garnering over 92% of the votes. The list is endless and one wonders whether opposition parties in Zimbabwe and the MDC-T in particular, are aware of this damning historical evidence which only the foolish can dismiss.

In fact, far from being an appealing weapon to fight dictatorship in the eyes of the international community, election boycotts are often loathed by many, for opposition parties can’t achieve success by overtly avoiding competition however flawed the rules governing such contests. As a result, and more often than not, election boycotts achieve the opposite results to what their evangelists parrot in public. Numerous case studies across the world back this observation. Back in 1997, the opposition in Mali boycotted the general elections won by Oumar Konare with a resounding victory, grabbing 123 of the 147 seats in the Legislature, with the outcome immediately recognised by the international community.

The same misfortune haunted the opposition in Azerbaijan in the 2003 presidential polls when they boycotted the vote only to gift Ilham Aliyev with a resounding victory that was quickly recognised by the international community. In 2011, Ellen Johnston Sirleaf of Liberia got re-elected in a run-off boycotted by her rival, the former UN diplomat Winston Tubman and the outcome got immediately endorsed by outsiders.

All the above evidence proves that it would be naïve for the opposition in Zimbabwe to overestimate the backing of the international community in the event that they decide to boycott all future elections, for boycotts do not always garner the international attention necessary to allow the boycotting parties to gain some benefits. If the opposition failed to force Mugabe to implement the needed reforms while they were still in the inclusive government, how can they dream of overcoming this obstacle through election boycotts?

In addition, the idea of boycotting elections is flawed in that its proponents assume Mugabe to have retained some decency in him to succumb to external pressures. In fact, the opposite is true, for how can a normal 91-year-old sacrifice the lives of the living, Itai Dzamara included, for the sake of clinging onto power? In this context, the idea of election boycotts is ill-advised and at worst, misinformed, since the incumbent has long lost all sense of humanity.

What then are the consequences of boycotting all future elections on the political landscape of Zimbabwe as propounded by its evangelists? In fact, boycotts ensure the survival of the incumbent’s regime as they empower the existing establishment. Every Dick and Tom in Zanu PF is of the opinion that they can win any contest in the absence of the opposition and this doesn’t do any good for the opposition if they dream of being relevant.

Zanu PF’s strategies of winning elections have evolved but the opposition fails to keep pace with this trend, hence the clamour for boycotts. In 2007-2008, the ruling party relied on open violence against its opponents but today it relies on the manipulation of the electoral process. All these are weapons at the regime’s disposal to cling onto power and it is a common phenomenon throughout the world. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt boycotted the 2014 presidential elections later won by Field Marshall Abdel Fatah Al Sisi who occupies the throne today. In the same way, Mugabe won’t lose sleep because the opposition would have boycotted polls because, in his calculation, that would bea blessing in disguise as he won’t have to sweat visiting the Masowe shrine for divine intervention.

In addition, by boycotting elections, the opposition leaves a political vacuum that needs filling. In Lebanon, the 1992 Maronite Christians’ electoral boycott left a void that had to be filled by Hassan Nazrullah’s Hezbollah which is a force to reckon with today in the country’s politics. In the same way, Pakistan experienced the same phenomenon when the Mahajir Qaumi Movement boycotted the 1993 elections only for the vacuum to be filled by Benazair Bhutto.

In the event that all major opposition parties in Zimbabwe boycott the forthcoming polls, new comers will fill the vacuum. That is one reason the NCA of Lovemore Madhuku participated in the recent by-elections even though their performance was dismal. When Tsvangirai boycotts an election, that is the most opportune moment for Madhuku and even Kisinotito shine. Their presence in the country’s political dynamics might appear insignificant as of now but that is how parties penetrate the thorny terrain gradually.

Not only that, by boycotting elections, opposition parties inflict harm onto themselves as the strategy is usually resisted from within by party cadres. In Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda’s United National Independence Party (UNIP) suffered the same fate in 1996 when the ill-advised strategy back-fired as it wasvehemently resisted by party members and the party has since lost its glory. In Gambia, the opposition made the same fatal mistake in 2002 when they boycotted presidential elections but only to be thrown into disarray up to now.

With all this evidence, how can the opposition justify their clamour for a boycott? How then can the MDC-T justify their effort in recalling renegade MPs from parliament when they are not prepared to defend their territory? What then can be done? The opposition in Zimbabwe should have Plan B instead of being enslaved by a resolution of their making.  It has to be acknowledged within opposition circles that strategies are fluid and whatever they agreed at congress can be reversed.

All efforts should be made to discourage boycotts but rather encourage broad participation by all citizens in the fight for democracy. Harvest House in particular should be a centre where democrats organise the voice and votes, rather than organise ‘’non-voting’’. If need be, it is time to extend an olive branch to Joice Mujuru and her supporters  so as to build a grand coalition to dislodge Mugabe rather than preaching the toxic narrative of non-voting.

In as much as pressure needs to be exerted on the African Union and SADC to intervene in the country’s deepening crisis, the narrative of boycotts  will  convince a few. Instead, protest rallies against the uneven playing field can achieve better results than election boycotts.

As identified above, election boycotts are an extremely ineffective weapon to fight an entrenched dictatorship. In any case, if the opposition boycotts the forthcoming by- elections, are they to do the same in 2018 if Mugabe doesn’t give in to their demands? There should be a realisation within opposition circles that elections do have a cycle.

William Muchayi is a pro-democracy activist and political analyst who can be contacted on wmuchayi@gmail.com

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