Boycotting elections? The wrong question

The current state of political mobilization and intensifying protests and strikes in Egypt has created a fanciful impression that change is inevitably on the way. While some predicted the that Egyptian regime would pass limited amendments to the constitution in order to appease public opinion, others expected it to make underhanded deals with secular opposition parties to keep the Muslim Brotherhood at bay, and furnish an image of a pluralistic political system.

However, the results of the Shura Council (upper house) elections last May have shattered any hopes for change and have again proven the regime's insistence on undermining democracy. The security apparatus interfered in the election process, allowing the vote to be rigged, and let the government’s bullies intimidate voters who mistakenly thought they had the freedom to elect candidates of their choosing.

The result was a decisive victory for the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which won 80 of the Shura Council’s 88 seats. Five other parties managed to obtain a seat each, while independents took the remaining three.

Whether or not Egyptians vote is therefore not the crucial question, as the NDP will have its candidates win either way. Other candidates continue to risk getting harassed or detained, if they manage to get nominated at all.

Thus, opposition parties are divided on whether or not to boycott the upcoming People's Assembly elections this fall and presidential elections next year. Each party believes it possesses the truth and accuses others of manipulating people’s hopes to achieve personal gains.

Here are the arguments for both sides.

Those parties supporting a boycott believe that participating in elections will confer legitimacy on what is in fact a spurious process. They posit that a boycott will pressure the regime to provide constitutional and legal guarantees for the integrity of the election process.

Their logic is simple: Why would anyone vote in an election, knowing beforehand that their vote will likely be counted in favor of the NDP.

Proponents of the boycott view the election process as poorly-directed parody, especially since election-day turnout has never exceeded 13 percent of eligible voters. They conclude that the political environment in Egypt is not conducive to genuine democracy and a peaceful transfer of power, and therefore an election boycott is the only appropriate response.

On the other side, there are those who believe boycotting to be a deceitful strategy that will further marginalize the opposition and diminish whatever popular support it has managed to acquire.

They summon the example of the liberal Wafd Party, which announced an election boycott in 1990 and persuaded the rest of the opposition to do the same. The outcome that year was disappointing. The leftist Tagammu Party breached the boycott and made a secret deal with the NDP, securing a handful of seats in parliament. Meanwhile, other parties who remained loyal to the boycott failed to boost their popularity. 

Both viewpoints have their merits, but the real problem is that opposition parties and movements remain divided among themselves. They hover between boycott and participation. They claim to reject the current regime but end up striking backhanded deals for the sake of a few seats.

The opposition does not realize how much pressure it could exert on the regime by adopting either viewpoint–provided they do so collectively. The NDP’s power stems from the weakness of the opposition, which if united as one solid front could shift the balance of power in Egypt, tipping it in the direction of change.

To boycott or to not to boycott is therefore not the question. Whatever stance the opposition parties take, they must do so together in order to be effective.

Translated from the Arabic Edition.

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