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When are electoral boycotts successful in inducing regime change? Research Paper

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Updated: Apr 8th, 2019


Conventionally, election is an official process where residents from a given area, country, or region decide on an individual to represent them or hold a public office.

Precisely, to elect means ‘to choose or make a decision’. It is the standard mechanism through which contemporary democracy has been exercised since 17th century.

This paper discerns situations where electoral boycotts can successfully induce regime change. It focuses on specific time period (1990-2002) with particular countries serving as critical examples.

Usually, elections have been used to choose representatives in the legislative assembly, executive committee, judiciary, and the local government. Elections are perceived as democratic way of selecting preferred leaders.

Evidently, leaders and electoral systems have undergone various reforms to improve fairness. However, elections in various countries and democracies have experienced difficulties.

Interference in the electoral process by the incumbent governments has been a major reason for elections not meeting the international standards fostering free and fair elections (Lindberg 77).

Dictatorial leaders have the tendency of engaging state machinery such as the police and judiciary to retain power when their terms are supposed to end.

The majority rule has been used frequently to prevent shift in the poise of power from one group to another in the legislative assembly. Additionally, non-governmental groups like human right groups possess a considerable influence in elections.

This occurs either through violence, intimidations, or corruption. These actions can easily result in inappropriate casting or counting of votes. Concurrently, difficulties in the election process can stem from the electorate being poorly informed about the candidates or about issues that affect them.

This is likely to occur where there is inadequate press freedom due to tight state control. The rules can also at times be unfair to opposition candidates as they may be excluded from eligibility for an office.

These conditions have promoted the mentioned electoral boycotts by the opposition groups. The individuals in power may also interfere in the election process by assassinating opposition candidates, making campaigns illegal.

They can also intimidate the electorate with violence. Precisely, these difficulties, together with political, social, legislative, and economic factors have (in many cases) led to election boycotts.

Electoral Boycotts

An election boycott occurs when a section of the voters refuse to vote during an electoral process. Electoral boycott is normally used as a way to show disapproval where the electorate feels that the system is biased or there is no legitimacy in the election process (Huntington 53).

Political parties and individuals are more likely to boycott elections so as to protest government’s electoral policies hoping that the elections will be declared illegitimate when the voters do not participate in voting. However, this method of electoral protest can be unsuccessful.

This paper seeks to understand the cases when electoral boycotts are successful in inducing regime change. As indicated earlier, it mainly focuses on the role that opposition parties play in elections in a country under authoritarian rule.

It also looks into the possibilities of legitimization and institutionalization of democratic elections. Additionally, it looks into the factors that enable some boycotts to succeed while others fail in attaining their desired objectives thus fail to induce regime change.

While providing examples of countries, it further includes the types of boycotts and the consequences of boycotting elections.

The use of violence during a major electoral boycott is one of the ways through which regime change can be successfully induced.

This is usually done in cases where the opposition has the resources to stage rebellion against the incumbent and wish to make it impossible for the incumbent to continue staying in power.

For example, this type of boycott took place in Ivory Coast in 1995 and in Indonesia in 1997 general elections.

Background Information

Generally, electoral boycotts have been seen and experienced in both democratic and non-democratic countries. However, historical evidence shows that electoral boycotts are more prevalent in authoritarian regimes mainly because of the intrinsic proposition of the voter or political party dissatisfaction with the electoral process.

The protest through boycotts can take the form of individual voters protesting or political parties or party coalition protesting with the aim of influencing some regime change (Levitsky & Way 138).

Electoral boycotting is more often than not a response to a broad belief that some kind of illegitimate or deceitful action might happen or will happen during the electoral process. This might follow perceptions of irregularity within the political or public system.

The irregularity may be ethnic, social, economic, or even religious biasness against some contenders for a political post or parties or due to a belief that the electoral body lacks legitimacy.

Electoral boycotting is usually considered to be undemocratic as it involves bypass of a democratic process. However, it is usually acceptable in situations where the election is not expected to be fair.

The fact that electoral boycotting is justified in certain situation does not mean that they usually succeed to achieve their goals.

The strategies used to boycott elections have at times proved to be disastrous to the individuals who or parties that boycott the elections and more often than not leads to further movement away from democracy.

The strategies used by parties to boycott elections are important in determining their possibility of succeeding in transformation of the current electoral process that is unfair or biased so that it becomes more competitive (Schedler 193).

The results of electoral boycotts are also influenced by the intentions of the opposition parties, their boycott strategies, and the existing political and electoral structures.

The feeling of the opposition group that they lack the ability to attain their desired political goal through legitimate means may push them to boycott the election.

There is also the possibility that the opposition candidates may not want to bring a political change that is democratic but actually they may boycott so as to change the electoral rules to enable them make good upcoming opportunities for themselves.

Therefore, the possibilities and results of electoral boycotts depends highly on the intentions that the opposition parties, the strategies adopted to boycott and the already existing political and electoral structures within the electoral autocracy that sections of the public must defeat so as to induce regime change.

Common Causes of Electoral Boycotts

Generally, electoral boycotts usually occur due to the opposition’s dissatisfaction with the ruling regime, dissatisfaction with the electoral system, and (to some extent) opposition’s intention to discredit the legitimacy of the current regime.

Boycotting elections might thus induce changes in the regime by unbalancing the electoral system. Elections usually enforce democracy by giving the citizens opportunity choose their leaders.

Thus, it gives the citizens an opportunity to rebel if the leader fails to rule appropriately and looses the trust that had been placed upon him or her.

The idea of coordination of election also provides a framework to understand why the opposition may undertake electoral boycott.

The information that the public normally receive about the performance of individual in power might be limited. Normally, this leads to the problem of enforcing accountability of the ruler.

This usually leads to weak threats of rebellion and thus reduces the possibility of the leader acting in the interest of the public.

Elections, however, solves this problem by bringing ways through which the public can change the ruler. The first method is when the ruler calls for an election. The votes that the ruler receives show his or her performance.

The other way is to overthrow the ruler if he or she fails to call for an election and be replaced by another person. On the other hand, the people may decide to accept that there will not be an election and accept to be under a dictator.

If the ruler calls for an election and fails to win, he or she is expected to hand over power. However, if the ruler fails to win and refuses to hand over, the people have an opportunity to forcefully remove the leader (Ellis, Stephen & Kessel 98).

The ruler can commit electoral fraud and go undetected and this distorts the results. If this goes undetected and the ruler is declared the winner, then it will be difficult to remove him or her from power except through boycott.

The electorate usually benefit whenever the elections are not biased and are free. If the elections are biased, the voters can benefit if the opposition decide to rebel and seek restoration of accountability.

The need of the opposition to restore accountability in the political and electoral system may take the form of boycotts. Boycotts are also due to elevated levels of unfairness in the electoral process.

An example is in Azerbaijan in the 1998 and 2000 elections where legislations that ensured the incumbent being advantaged during the electoral process were made. The government in Azerbaijan tried to get control of the body that managed the electoral process.

Strategies Used By Authoritarian Regimes to Maintain Power

Authoritarian regimes at times depend on the electoral structures to survive and continue their rule. This usually depends on the social, political, economic, and ethnic factors of the country. These features of a country create a variety of opportunities for subversion rules that ensures democracy.

Institutional arrangements are usually used to get support from the economic elites in efforts to persuade the masses to participate and give support to the authoritarian regime (Bunce & Sharon 137).

A single party system where there are many candidates who compete for an office is usually effective in achieving this objective. It usually pleases the masses by creation of a pretense of democracy through the offer of possibility of regime change through elections.

The ruling elite often offer concessions to the business people or the economic elites so that they participate in the political platform created by the authoritarian regime.

Such concessions entice cooperation of the economic elites and allow flexibility in the political and electoral structure.

The authoritarian regimes usually have to put certain checks so as to maintain power for example making defection from the party a criminal offense and punishable through restraints by the constitution (Ezrow & Frantz 174).

This shows that the authoritarian regimes are also usually involved in the manipulation of the constitution to suit their desired goals.

The other strategy that an authoritarian regime can put in place to ensure survival is putting in place mechanisms that ensure that the economic elites do not acquire too much wealth.

These methods enable the creation of a consolidated and strong regime with a weak and easily manipulated opposition, a good public support, and participation by the masses in the electoral process. This can help the authoritarian regime survive.

The leaders in an authoritarian regime also use the electoral process to solve problems that allow them stay in power. Electoral boycotts and processes allow opposition parties usually to defeat a repressive regime through noble and peaceful means.

Election functions as good way through which an authoritarian regime can exercise its power and avoid political and administrative competition. It provides a reason to align the elites with the regime and provides an opportunity to allow candidates run for elective posts as they are provided with winning opportunities (Ezrow & Frantz 174).

The regime organizes the electoral designs in ways that enables them achieve their desired goals, the main one being survival of the regime.

A good example of how a regime ensured survival through the electoral process is in China. The Chinese government used a decentralization technique in order to stimulate economic growth.

This technique began by separating the local and national election. Corruption was monitored and the participation of the youth was stimulated by delegation of power to the local officials. However, the people at village level could not elect national leaders.

This was because the regime feared that elections in the large cities could not be easily monitored and controlled as it wished. The elections were therefore a way for the government to enact its policies and also survive.

The election enabled the government to monitor corruption, ensure youth participation and also maintain much control and authority (Lucas 56).

The election at village level was organized in a way that competition was possible, involvement was also possible, and regime ideology was promoted. Anybody could vote or vie for a position and the candidates could be of other parties other than the Communist Party.

This electoral structure allowed for independent candidates to vie and the villagers had a feeling that they had more choice. However, once the independent candidates reached higher positions, they were recruited to the Communist Party so as to consolidate ideologies.

In the end, election was merely a façade of democracy, appealing the masses and politicians. Some people boycotted the elections due to varying reasons. Similarly, it enabled the regime to maintain power. This indicates how electoral boycott can actually induce regime change.

This Chinese method can be contrasted with the nationalist systems of elections in which elites invest in the regime to ensure its survival. This method usually gives election winners a sense of accomplishment.

Candidates usually invest in the regime by using their own resources to achieve popularity. This benefits the regime as it does not use its resources to back candidates. The candidates on the other hand can use and benefit from the states machinery and the legislative seat they win benefits them later.

The high costs used in the campaigns are outweighed by the gains of being in the legislative assembly. This method also ensures authoritarian regimes survival by provision of incentives for the economic elite.

Another method that authoritarian regimes ensure survival is through repression. Opposition parties at times form coalitions so as to defeat the incumbent regime.

Concurrently, they can organize to boycott elections in order to attain some regime change if the incumbent government cannot handover power despite losing elections. The opposition parties, however, usually experience difficulties in their quest to form coalitions due to ideology.

However, at times it is the ruling party that makes it difficult for the opposition to form coalition. The electoral system under a repressive regime can restrict opposition’s ability to form coalition through institutions (Bunce & Sharon 137).

This technique is effective in enabling regime survival through repression and electoral fraud but it is likely to lead to regime’s resentment and may lead to protests and revolutions.

Finally, the use of international monitors as overseers of elections is another strategy used to ensure survival of authoritarian regime. Conversely, it can enhance electoral boycott in case it realizes some mischief in the election processes assumed in the concerned country.

International monitoring of the election can legitimize an authoritarian regime even though it serves as a way of promoting democracy. Presence of international monitors is seen as increased confidence in the processes of election and reduction in electoral fraud.

This assists the repressive regime receive endorsement domestically and internationally. This ensures the continuity in the authoritarian rule and also support.

However, such strategies usually lead to boycotts at times and the boycotters can be either individuals or political parties not participating in the election process.

Election Boycotts and Opposition’s Participation in Election

There are instances when the opposition parties decide to participate in the electoral processes even when the chances of the election being free and fair are to the very minimum.

Boycotts too may take place even when the election is relatively fair with the purpose of discrediting the ruling regime if the opposition feels it is likely to lose the race (Sharp 93).

The opposition’s participation in an election is calculated or checked through either total boycotts, partial boycotts and all contest.

Total boycotts is when one of the actual opposing parties participate in the elections while partial boycotts refer to when some of the opposition parties, but not all, participate in the elections.

The term all contest is used when all the political parties participate in the elections.

Boycotts in various countries have also suggested that opposition parties are likely to unite in a boycott than to unite and face the incumbent in an election.

However, the opposition parties usually have disunity even when they decide to boycott and that is why partial boycotts are more prevalent than total boycotts.

In most cases, some of the opposition parties unite in boycott, but not all of them. The behavior of the opposition parties during the elections brings about the issue of the significance of their participation in an election.

The participation of opposition parties in an election is a matter that should be studied so as to know the benefits and to understand the underlying factors that may force boycotts. There are two interrelated reasons why the study of the importance of the opposition’s participation is important.

The first reason concerns the importance of participation from democracy’s point of view while the second deals with the opposition party’s behavior under authoritarian electoral system and the role they play in directing such regimes in the direction of democracy (Sharp 47).

Autonomy is democracy’s real value and thus the independence of a people to rule the country. There must be some form of governance for any form of political grouping to make inclusive decisions for the members.

In a democratic system, that simply means people’s representation to the legislative, executive and local government.

Participation in elections and competitive nature of elections are organized ways to enable the existence of democracy in the most contemporary form.

Therefore, the primary importance of self-government relates directly to the idea of equal opportunity of participating in politics and elections and also to the idea that political competition is a way of promoting democracy.

For the people of a particular nation to participate in an election that ensures that they exercise their sovereignty there has to be a choice. Political opposition provides that choice that ensures that the people exercise their right to rule indirectly via representation.

Consequently, the participation of opposition parties in electoral process is a requirement for political competition which is vital to the attainment of self-governance and democracy.

The Major Types of Election Boycotts

Election boycotts can be conceptualized in two ways. The difference between the major and minor elections boycotts relates to the magnitude and actions of the boycotting political groups.

The second difference in boycotts involves the ways in which the boycotters aim at attaining their desired goals. The first method of differentiating major and minor elections boycotts is all about numbers.

If an election boycott involves all the major or majority of the opposition parties then it is considered to be a major election boycott (Lindberg 235).

However, it is possible for one main political party to boycott an election and in effect constitute a major political boycott.

There are cases in which a political group may team up with minor parties and boycott together. The major electoral boycotts that are successful are those in which the opposition political parties join forces and become a single unified group (Lewis 146).

However, these are usually rare since most opposition parties find it difficult to come together to form a unified front due to various factors such as ideological differences.

In some cases, even when the main opposition party boycotts the election, smaller parties are likely to participate in the election and in most cases, they support the incumbent regime.

Additionally, opposition parties that boycott elections usually tend to be heterogeneous and are always ready to accommodate other parties.

Minor electoral boycotts on the other hand are usually pushed by the smaller political parties which in most cases do not represent majority of the opposition. The political parties in minor boycotts are usually homogenous and do have strong ties to some form of orientation and share common ideologies.

Additionally, in most cases they represent the minority in the country. Therefore, major electoral boycotts are mainly initiated by large opposition political parties while the minor boycotts are launched by smaller opposition parties.

Major election boycotters can pursue objectives that are for the general public since they are large. Their sizes enable them to rationalize the benefit.

This is in contrast to the minor political boycotts which in most cases go after more specific and private goals due to their small sizes and their homogenous composition (Lindberg 235).

The other way in which election boycotts vary has to do with the intention of the boycotters attempts to delegitimize the regime that is currently in power often hoping that if the incumbent losses legitimacy, then they will get more support for their cause.

This type of boycott is usually non-violent in nature since the boycotting group usually attempt to appeal to the sympathy of the masses and the international community.

The Consequences of Boycotts

The differences between the major and minor political and electoral boycotts took in to consideration the magnitude of the boycott and the capacity of the boycotting group to engage in violence.

It is therefore important to know the short-term and long-term consequences of such boycotts. The major boycotts are usually protests against the regime’s electoral fraudulent activities and biasness in elections.

These issues also affect the entities that promote democracy in the third world countries and emphasize the electoral process as a vital activity in the process of building democracy. These, therefore, show coincidence in the interests of the two groups.

However, there is the question of how boycotts fit in the process of democratization. In the short term, major boycotts do not show any positive results for democracy. Actually, they challenge democracy as there is no opposition to the ruler.

Additionally, major boycotts usually lead to fewer voters casting the ballot meaning that democracy is not attained. The major boycotts also increase the possibility of some kind of violence that is related to the election.

Election boycott to some extent is usually used as an indicator that the election has actually failed.

Some of the effects of boycotts are violence and rebellions, loss of confidence in the political structures and pressures from the international community. Boycotts can also lead to changes in the regimes and rise to democracy.

Situations in Which Electoral Boycott Are Successful In Inducing Regime Change

As discussed earlier, boycotts (in most cases) occur when opposition parties and masses are dissatisfied with the electoral system that a regime has put in place.

Concurrently, they can disagree with the policies established and embraced by the regime. The regimes also have mechanisms that ensure their stay in power is enabled. They have the states resources to for survival.

Therefore, there are certain conditions that must exist to ensure successful electoral boycotts by the opposition parties. One of the factors that can enable the success of an election boycott is the magnitude or size of the boycotting group.

A large opposition is able to initiate a major boycott and this can help the opposition to achieve its goals. For example, in Bangladesh, the two major parties involved in political competition presently were established as opposition parties and participated in the general election.

The Awami League was established when Bangladesh was a section of the Pakistan. One of the major reasons for the formation of The Awami League was to oppose Pakistani rule of Bangladesh.

The Awami League boycotted the Bangladesh general elections in the year 1996 as an opposition group. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which was in power in 1996 had participated in a 1988 election boycott (Taylor 188).

The BNP was formed in the 1970s to oppose a previous Awami League regime that had become repressive and authoritarian in nature.

The successes that these two parties had had in inducing regime change through electoral boycotts stem from the fact that the boycotts were major and involved a large number of people.

The other way through which electoral boycotts can induce regime change is by the boycotters appealing to the masses and trying to appear sympathetic to the masses and the international community.

This method is usually used when the boycotters aim at delegitimizing the regime in power. The opposition using this strategy usually hopes that the regime in power will lose legitimacy and will attract people to support their goals.

This type of boycott is usually non-violent as it is supposed to be one that makes the boycotters appear sympathetic.

In India, Gandhi used this boycott method to oppose the British colonial rule and succeeded (Taylor 112).

The implementers of this boycott method usually do not want to use violence or do not have the capacity to employ violence in their actions.

The other way through which electoral boycotts can lead to regime change successfully is through the accompaniment of a major boycott with violence to the extent that the incumbent regime finds it impossible to continue staying in power.

Combination of major boycott with violence usually aims at threatening the ruling party with the possibility of rebellions in the future. Boycotts launched by various paramilitary groupings usually take this form and have often led to fall of many regimes (Sawer 11).

The electoral boycotts that take this form are usually viewed to be launched by groups that have resources and in most cases are able to fight with the regime’s military and the police. A major political boycott took place in Cote d’ Ivory in 1995 and it was accompanied with lots of violence.

During the boycotts, clashes took place between the supporters of the opposition leader and government forces. Another example where a major election boycott is accompanied with violence to induce regime change is in the Indonesian election of 1997.

The supporters of the opposition rioted and stormed various offices and houses of the economic elites and were also involved in murder, looting and arson.

Boycotts can be absolute or partial depending on the situation. Concurrently, elections can also be major or minor depending on their magnitude. Participation in elections is important as it is a way of promoting democracy.

Participation is also important even in an authoritative regime as it directs such a regime towards democracy. The magnitude or the size of an electoral boycott is one of the factors that enable successful inducement of regime change through the concerned boycott.

Such trends can be achieved if the electoral boycott is major. Usually, it is important to agree that major political parties opposing incumbent regimes can easily induce electoral boycott.

This is what happened in Bangladesh where the present leading political parties began as opposition parties and were able to change regimes through boycotts.


A boycott occurs when voters refuse to vote in an election. They are normally used to show dissatisfaction in the current regime. The opposition political parties and individuals are likely to boycott elections as a way of protesting the ruling regime’s policies with the hope that the elections will be declared illegitimate and a regime change might be induced.

Evidently, this has occurred in numerous countries with an ultimate change in regimes. At times, electoral boycotts can be successful in enforcing regime change and there are conditions that must be in place to enable this take place. This considers the tactics that authoritarian regimes use to retain power.

There are different causes of electoral boycotts and the importance of the opposition’s participation in the electoral process.

Additionally, this paper discerned the consequences of electoral boycotts and more importantly, circumstances under which electoral boycotts can lead to successful inducement of regime changes.

The methods that authoritarian regimes use to ensure their continued stay in power include the manipulation of the electoral process, provision of incentives to the economic elites, and repression of the opposition parties.

Additionally, they can create a façade of democracy to please the masses and make opposition and defection illegal.

These might cause electoral boycotts with an ultimate change in regime as evident in numerous countries mentioned earlier. Political parties that oppose the ruling party can also try and appeal to the masses so as to appear sympathetic and gain support domestically and internationally.

Usually, this is done so that in case they succeed; they can get more political support from the domestic and international audiences who are likely to put pressure on the incumbent party.

In this way, the party can get a platform to the leadership position of the country. This is the method that Gandhi of India used to oppose the British rule during the colonial period even though it is not common. This method is usually non-violent. Usually, it targets the audience.

The use of violence during a major electoral boycott is another way through which regime change can be successfully induced. As indicated earlier, this situation is exemplified by Ivory Coast and Indonesia in 1995 and 1997 respectively.

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Huntington, Samuel. The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. Norman, OK: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1993. Print.

Levitsky, Steven, and Lucan Way. Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.

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