Although a boycott strategy worked in the South African example, the evidence shows that such successes are exceedingly rare. A 2010 study by Matthew Frankel of the Brookings Institution found that boycotts paid off in just 4 percent of the 171 cases examined between 1990 and 2009. Frankel concluded that the threat of a boycott can be effective when there is strong domestic and international pressure to ensure that elections are fully representative, but that in most circumstances the strategy will backfire.
The consequences of a boycott are especially dire when the opposition is incapable of actually blocking the elections from proceeding, either through crippling street protests or rules requiring a certain turnout for the vote to be valid. For example, in Venezuela’s 2005 legislative elections, an opposition boycott—motivated in part by concerns about ballot secrecy—helped reduce the turnout rate to just 25 percent, but progovernment lawmakers then monopolized the new National Assembly and helped President Hugo Chávez push through radical policy initiatives. By contrast, high opposition participation in a 2007 constitutional referendum helped defeat a controversial package of amendments sought by Chávez, including the removal of presidential term limits.
Another weakness of the boycott strategy is that it allows the opposition’s campaign machinery to go idle and corrode, making it all the more difficult to reactivate for the next cycle of elections. For example, in Iraq’s January 2005 elections, a concerted Sunni boycott amounted to a “strategic blunder,” according to Frankel, because Sunnis won only 5 of 275 parliamentary seats. In the short term, this meant that Sunnis relinquished their veto power during the drafting process for a new constitution. But in the longer term, the groups that boycotted had to redouble their efforts to mobilize their voter base and win representation in the December 2005 elections.
More recent cases reinforce Frankel’s finding that boycotts are almost always counterproductive. In March 2014, Libya’s ethnic Amazigh minority decided to boycott elections for a 60-seat Constituent Assembly, leaving the two seats designated for the Amazigh empty and the community itself without a voice in the drafting of a new constitution.
Likewise, in Algeria’s April 2014 presidential vote, six parties boycotted because they feared that vote tampering would guarantee the incumbent’s victory. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika easily won a fourth term.
Frankel’s study and the recent cases show that executing an election boycott does not force the ruling party from power, and in the absence of serious negotiations as well as strong societal and international pressure, the threat of a boycott is unlikely to win concessions from the government. Instead, such tactics tend to encourage apathy and resignation among opposition voters. In the cases listed above, it would have been better for opposition or minority groups to invest their energy in organizing an election campaign, mobilizing their supporters, building up their political prowess for future contests, and making any fraud or repression by the authorities that much more difficult and obvious to the world.