On Boycotts, Futility, and Playing Checkers while G2 Plays Chess

It’s not really true that the academic literature extensively documents the futility of electoral boycotts. Believing it does makes it dead easy for the government to divide the opposition.

Photo: FidelCastro.cu

Over on Foreign Affairs, Francisco Rodríguez puts forth the case for voting in the soon-to-be-inevitable referendum on a new Constitution. His argument is mostly a retread of his support for taking part in May’s election, and its centerpiece is the idea that elections boycotts don’t work, and that’s a political science fact you can take to the bank:

Academic literature extensively documents the futility of electoral boycotts. A 2010 study by Matthew Frankel of the Brookings Institution looked at 171 cases of boycotts and found that only four percent result in positive outcomes. Boycotts do not increase the probability of regime change, but they do cause the boycotting movements to lose control of key spaces of power, thus eroding their capacity to contest the government’s control.

As you can see, Matthew Frankel’s study from 2010 is doing a lot of work in this piece—it’s the lynchpin for the whole argument. If we’re talking about a settled fact, then boycotting is perverse and self-defeating.

Is that true?

To check, it’s worth going back to Frankel’s study. First things first: this isn’t really an academic study. It’s not peer reviewed, its methodology isn’t presented in full, there’s hardly a graph anywhere. It’s a Think Tank piece, really… and not a very good one.

It’s a Think Tank piece, really… and not a very good one.

What Frankel argues, basically, is that threatening to boycott an election (he mentions a few cases: South Africa, Cambodia and Bosnia) is often effective, but actually boycotting isn’t. He presents 171 actual boycotts, and notes just 4% succeed, so the implications are clear: bluff about boycotts if you need to, but whatever you do, do not go through with it.

The problem with this is fairly obvious. Every actual boycott starts as a boycott threat. Less authoritarian governments respond to threats by making meaningful concessions — and then the threat doesn’t need to be carried out (and Frankel counts it as “effective”). More authoritarian governments, for their part, respond to threats by flipping protesters the finger and doubling down on unacceptable elections conditions. Which yields boycotts that, not surprisingly, are very rarely successful.

The point here is that actual boycotts are a subset of threatened boycotts—specifically, actual boycotts are what happens when a regime is so authoritarian that it refuses to make concessions when faced with boycott threats. These governments, Frankel shows, are extremely hard to dislodge from power.

But that’s just a fancy way of saying more authoritarian regimes are harder to depose than less authoritarian regimes. Which is circular, isn’t it?

Actual boycotts are what happens when a regime is so authoritarian that it refuses to make concessions when faced with boycott threats.

Let’s bring this home. At the beginning of the negotiating process between the government and MUD ahead of May’s elections, the opposition asked for a series of basic reforms to electoral conditions, to ensure minimal standards of fairness. If Nicolás Maduro had been willing to make those concessions, the opposition would have participated—and won.

Frankel would’ve been able to say “see, threatening a boycott was effective!”

But through the course of negotiations, Maduro revealed that he was so authoritarian, he was unwilling to make meaningful concessions, even if that meant facing a boycott and widespread international condemnation. Facing voting conditions that every big country in the hemisphere (as well, it turns out, as Francisco Rodríguez) saw as unfair, most of the opposition boycotted. Maduro’s intransigence unmasked the depth of his authoritarianism and left the opposition out of options.

Of course, the boycott didn’t work.

“See!” says Frankel, “Told you!”

Heads I win, tails you lose.

When you look at it closely, Frankel’s study is silly. The actual political science on this stuff is far more equivocal. As you’d expect from a difficult topic with a small N-size, scholars often disagree. For instance, while noting that many comparativists suspect that boycotts are mostly ineffective, Andreas Schedler finds evidence suggesting that in competitive authoritarian regimes “both full participation and full boycott augment the chances of democratic change, while partial boycotts reinforce the authoritarian status quo.” It’s a complex question; definitely not an open-and-shut case.

Of course, none of this is to say that boycotting was the right decision in May. Reasonable people can disagree about this. But pretending it’s a settled question isn’t just objectively wrong, it’s also tactically hamfisted, because it multiplies the chances we end up with the position most likely to reinforce the authoritarian status quo. 

A half-boycott is very obviously the government’s preferred outcome.

Let’s think back to the Dominican Republic. The one outcome of that negotiation scholars like Schedler suspect has the lowest chance of success is the partial boycott. And boy is that where we ended up!

In May, one part of the opposition took part in the vote, another faction sat the vote out, open warfare between the two ensued, and Jorge Rodríguez laughed all the way to the baranda del CNE. Hilariously, Henri Falcón disowned the election’s legitimacy after polling centers had closed.

This kind of half-boycott is very obviously the government’s preferred outcome. And by wedding part of the opposition to a no-boycotts-never-ever position, Francisco makes that outcome much easier to achieve.

If one faction commits itself to participating no matter what, dividing the opposition becomes super easy: just a matter of carajear Julio Borges until he says “no more!”

Reading Francisco’s piece left me with this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that when the government calls a referendum to ratify the new Constitution, we’re going to repeat the whole Dominican Republic “dialogue” charade all over again.

And end up in the worst of all possible worlds, again.

Because we keep playing checkers while G2’s playing chess.