I hate sounding like an academic but for the benefit of everyone, let me be elementary with the issue of elections boycott.
As this is not an academic journal, please accept my paraphrasing Wikipedia in defining an election boycott and giving general reasons for boycotting elections.
An election boycott is the refusal to take part in a sham election by individuals or group of voters, each of whom abstains from voting.
At times boycotting voters may be advocated by a particular regional or ethnic group, as is the case by Mthwakazi National Party which is calling on Matabeleland and Midlands residents not to partake in the ‘Zimbabwe’ elections. In most cases, one political party or candidate may refuse to participate in an election and encourage its members and supporters to boycott the vote. This is what Patriotic Front did pre-independence and what Zimbabwean opposition parties have been doing during by-elections since Zanu humbled or cheated them in 2013. They were demanding electoral reforms. Ironically, MDC T recalled a significant number of opposition MPs from parliament, hence leaving Zanu with a wider majority. Subsequent boycotts simply enlarged Zanu’s majority whilst relegating the opposition MPs into chair warmers. It is also surprising that both MDCs were not forceful enough despite SADC reminding them about electoral reforms when they were in the inclusive GNU.
The other reason for boycott is that during general elections, individuals and parties will often do so as a protest against the ruling party’s policies in the belief that when voters stay away, the elections will be considered illegitimate by outside observers. It has to be noted that this may instead have adverse consequences on the boycotting parties. Lack of participation in an election rarely nullifies its results in the short run. In the same vein, by not voting, the opposition parties are excluding themselves from the organs of power, hence leaving them vulnerable to political irrelevance. Prof Moyo once mentioned it, that Zanu will not reform itself out of power. Zanu has proved that by simply ignoring and resisting the electoral reforms noise in all forums and angles they have been presented. Indeed gaining and maintaining power is what politicians go into politics for. It is therefore naïve for anyone to expect Zanu to relinquish power to opposition in the form of electoral reforms.
The case that Morgan Tsvangirai remains at the helm of his party, almost twenty years since he assumed its leadership shows that voluntarily leaving power is a rare feat among all Zimbabwean politicians. Therefore once in power, the opposition will use the same unfair tactics without any reforms to maintain themselves in power! This could be the reason why they ignored advocating for electoral reforms whilst they were still in the GNU.
On the other hand, as a small victory, a pat on the back; we have to commend the boycotters for seeking to use the law and not chaos to further their aims. Therefore, I would like to assume that they are boycotting in the national interest, as they endeavor to promote and strengthen our electoral process and in the long term, our democracy.
Herein is the big question, ‘If voting is a fundamental right in a democratic process, then why would an individual or group choose to forgo a chance at participating in any elections? Why stifle one’s own voice?’ It is essential to note that boycotting elections throws away one’s vote and silences the collective voice. There will never be a time when Zimbabwe will have perfect elections and thus delaying or boycotting them does not promote stability, but only serves to prolong our frustration and anger because Zanu will not entertain the opposition parties’ demands for electoral reforms. Boycotting could maybe work if the objective is to create and exploit that anger amongst the restive Zimbabwean citizenry. Otherwise, boycotting elections exposes a crisis and lack of strategy for opposition parties, not Zanu. The opposition is perceived to be in disarray, weak and lacking in strategy or decisive and innovative leadership. Whilst Zanu has its own intra fights, as it is there is a brutal warfare within the MDCT to push out its own female deputy president Thoko Khuphe. Again, MDCT may head for another messy split whilst Zanu will not split but coalesce around its chosen leader during elections.
Evidence has over time proved that boycotting elections has failed in most cases with the exception where use of force is given as the alternative. When the opposition and voters boycott without plan B, they simply relegate the party voice to “non participant”.
In a 2010 study “Threaten but Participate: Why Election Boycotts Are a Bad Idea” by Matthew Frankel, ‘in 171 cases of the opposition choosing to boycott elections, the boycott strategy only worked 4 percent of the time.’ Opposition parties’ boycotting elections means excluding themselves from the legislation drafting process that will consequently be conducted by the governing party on its own. Significantly in Zimbabwe, those who boycotted elections as was the case especially in rural areas and some urban centers during this parliament will have to redouble their efforts to regain lost seats in the 2018 elections. Zanu benefitted immensely by gaining seats in these areas where it has not had any for many years, and it will surely pour its mighty resources to retain them.
Generally, evidence has again and again proved that boycotting an election is a gamble that hardly works because it may only make a point at the expense of both the individual voter as well as at the institutional level. It can only work if it is backed by mass action or being used to let the governing party damage itself beyond repair by letting it fail to resuscitate the economy so that the opposition would then stand a better chance of winning in the next elections. But this is the gamble that Frankel emphasised as having not been proven to be successful in most cases. In our situation, boycotting an election will certainly not compel Zanu to get out of power because Zanu doesn’t care about what the opposition wants. Zanu will not surrender power to the opposition by reforming electoral laws so that they become friendlier to its contestants.
So, why not encourage all voters, especially the youths, to come out in their millions and vote in order to have a stronger voice to hold the winner accountable if he does not satisfy the electorate? Indeed, the opposition should organize the voters for victory, not to organize non-voting to be perpetual mourners. Our opposition parties must move beyond protesting towards voting, because voting currently provides the only option and incentive for political parties to be organised and to elect quality candidates whilst staying visible and relevant in parliament and in the political battlefield. Opposition leaders should always remember that “good men at good times should not set bad examples for bad men at bad times”.