Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Re-examining the Election Boycott

Written by johnleemk on 1:45:49 pm Jan 27, 2007.

In the course of discussing the recent decision of the Barisan Alternatif to boycott the Batu Talam by-election, I have found that there is a surprising number of people who seem to think the boycott is a better alternative to contesting. These people often cite examples such as that of Thailand, where former PM Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled after the tide of popular opinion turned against him. Others appear to believe that UMNO or BN will simply collapse without elections as a cover for distributing patronage.

I personally believe that many of these people are beyond hope. If they cannot see how the boycott will fail after reading my earlier piece on this, they are just too blinded by their partisan views to think straight. Often, responses to my arguments have been mainly grandstanding about how it will hurt the government economically if turnout is poor, etc. Without any specifics, it's practically impossible to rebutt this, because I can't even tell what logical basis there is in thinking this. It seems to be more wishful thinking than anything else - how will the government be hurt by a boycott?

Will the government lose its legitimacy? No more than the Singaporean government lost its legitimacy by totally monopolising Parliamentary seats until the 1980s, and regularly being returned to power on nomination day. Faux democracies like Taiwan and South Korea survived and even modernised themselves, adapting to globalisation, without ever truly democratising. When they finally did adopt an open and free societal model, they did this not because opposition parties boycotted elections, but because opposition parties took action to change their society for the better. They sought the power to change their countries - they did not stand down and just moan about how the rules were unfair, even though they had every right to.

Very few countries are bypassed by foreign investment or foreign governments simply because they are undemocratic or unfree. I already pointed out examples such as China and Singapore before. The only countries which are truly international pariahs are those without any elections whatsoever, or which so terribly infringe human rights that no free country could bring itself to do business with them. Examples, as I already pointed out earlier, are Myanmar, North Korea, Cuba, and until recently, South Africa and the Soviet bloc. These regimes have survived for ages without collapsing - so why do we think we can bring about the collapse of BN simply by boycotting elections?

A couple of novel arguments have been raised in addition to the ones I already addressed. One of them is that BN's lifeblood is the distribution of political patronage through the scheme of election campaigns - without this cover, BN will supposedly lose the support of the corrupt elite who back it. I can't be the only one who finds this a terribly flimsy excuse for boycotting elections. For one, BN can easily spawn "independent" candidates to create contests, and if it really wanted to, probably could even funnel money to these independents to make it a heated contest (and then gain even more of an excuse to distribute patronage). Some have alleged that BN has already done this in Batu Talam with Ng Chee Pang - I don't know enough to make a statement about that. Whatever the case, if BN wants to find a way to dole out favours, it will. And there are a million other ways of cronyism that don't involve elections - approved permits, anyone? Government contracts? The list goes on and on. I hardly think boycotting elections will spell the end of money politics or BN.

The other novel argument is that boycotts have worked in some cases - two countries cited were Thailand and Bangladesh. I am not familiar about the situation in Bangladesh, but I don't think you can cite Thaksin's collapse as an example of boycotts working. For one thing, the opposition parties in Thailand had little, if anything, to do with Thaksin's actual deposal, nor Thai Rak Thai's (Thaksin's party) loss of power. It was a military coup that threw Thaksin out. You can make a convoluted case for the opposition parties by suggesting that their rallies and boycotts made the coup possible, but from what I know, there was already wide discontent with Thaksin (at least in the cities) before the opposition parties decided to boycott the general election.

The main reason the example of the Thais does not apply here is simply that BN has not lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the voters. Boycott proponents seem to believe that the boycott will cause BN to lose legitimacy, when in reality this has never (as far as I know) happened in any case where a boycott was deployed solely for this purpose. Rather, the only boycotts to have worked took place after the ruling regime had already lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the people, and was thus vulnerable to any further undercutting of its credibility - the frustrated people would participate in the boycott and refuse to vote. The same will not happen here.

Remember Thailand - the boycotts there, if they worked at all, succeeded because the people were already wholly fed up with Thaksin. The same cannot be said here. There is simmering discontent and BN is by no means wildly popular, but it remains rather credible and legitimate in the eyes of average people. For opposition diehards and people with their eyes wide open, BN has of course lost any legitimacy it may have had a long time ago, but for most Malaysians, BN isn't too bad. People put up with its shenanigans as long as they can make a living. That is why, as I said before, it is so important for the opposition parties to hammer away at this issue - by pointing out how the opposition could raise standards of living if it was the government instead of BN. That is the answer to our problems - not boycotts.

We can find some parallels between the situation of the opposition here and that of the opposition in Venezuela. There are some differences - for one, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has a personality cult that Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi does not, and for another, the elite of Venezuela are generally pro-opposition. Nevertheless, the opposition there has managed to shoot itself in the foot so many times - and yet the lessons it has learnt seem to have to be learnt the hard way by our opposition parties in Malaysia.

For much of Chavez's regime, opposition parties campaigned against him on a platform of not being Chavez. They pointed out how his policies would bring ruin to the country. They argued vehemently against letting Chavez remain in the government. Not once did they point out how they would do better than Chavez. Not once did they present a coherent agenda or sensible policies that they would implement once they were in the government. Is it surprising that they consistently lost to Chavez in landslides?

After a while, they decided they'd had enough, and boycotted the Venezuelan elections. They pointed out numerous irregularities with the vote. They argued that the elections were substantially unfair. They noted how Chavez abused state media to create his personality cult and campaign for him. No prizes for guessing how the boycott fared - Chavez is still in power, and going as strong as ever.

Finally, the opposition began to catch on. In the last election, their Presidential candidate did more than criticise Chavez's policies. Instead of just noting how Chavez's plans for distributing petroleum revenue would waste substantial money and effort on bureaucracy and red tape, he came up with an idea for distributing the revenue efficiently. He proposed a scheme to distribute pre-loaded debit cards to all Venezuelans - each card holding an individual Venezuelan's share of oil revenue. No red tape, no bureaucrats. The opposition was more successful than it had been in the past, but it just was not good enough. The voters still did not trust it because of its history, and Chavez won another victory.

The lesson of Venezuela is that the opposition cannot expect boycotts to work if the government has legitimacy, nor can it expect simple criticism of the government to be effective in a one-party system. The opposition must show how it would be a good government if it won power - and even this can be insufficient if the government remains wildly popular (Chavez won re-election mainly due to his personality cult). And, as for the Batu Talam by-election, I am hopeful that Ng is not a pawn of BN - but at any rate, he has been a refreshing change from the usual politics of the opposition. He may have been a political amateur and woefully out of his league, but at least he was not your typical politician. Batu Talam goes to the polls today, and I hope Ng will not lose his deposit. Nevertheless, whatever the result, the opposition should not boycott future elections simply because it wants to protest something. It should not contest if it is not cost-effective, but it should not boycott. Boycotts are a road to failure.

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