Caution:  Boycotting elections has its negative consequences

SOME sad news appeared recently in the social media, informing that CHADEMA is planning to boycott the forthcoming Local Authorities by-elections. This appeared in a statement attributed to the Chairman of CHADEMA’s Western Zone, reportedly speaking from Kigoma.

I have already, on previous occasions, written similar pieces for this column, about the negative consequences that are caused by boycotting elections.

But in view of this new ‘election boycott’  threat by CHADEMA, it may be appropriate and perhaps helpful,  to revisit this matter of the ‘negative consequences’ of boycotting elections, especially in view of the unpleasant  memories of  past ‘election boycotts’ in Zanzibar  that were carried out  by the Civic United Front (CUF) and  especially  the  negative consequences  which they  produced.

The CUF boycotts were, admittedly, based on genuine ‘electoral grievances’, for which there were no other options for legal remedies. This was so for two basic reasons.  In the first place, they were ‘valid protests’ against the declared results of the Zanzibar Presidential elections which, under the country’s constitution, could not be challenged in a court of competent jurisdiction.

But secondly, as we shall see a little later below, they were based on genuine complaints by CUF against the obviously unfair decisions of the Zanzibar Electoral Commission.

The adverse consequences of boycotting elections

Boycotting elections has its adverse consequences which, in fact, will   not hurt the political system itself, which will continue functioning normally, but will only hurt the boycotting party itself.

In today’s article, I am endeavouring to examine such consequences arising from our nasty past experience of the political impasse in Zanzibar.  The word “boycott” means “the refusal to take part in something, as a way of protesting about it”’.

That is to say, expressing strong disagreement, or disapproval, of it; and that is precisely the message which CUF wanted to convey to Tanzanians and to the rest of the world,  when they repeatedly boycotted the Zanzibar elections; that is to say, they wanted to convey their ‘message of protest’  against, and their strong disapproval of  the relevant  elections results.

Protests are, of course, perfectly normal occurrences in a large number of human communities, and they usually create no cognitive offence.  Furthermore, election boycotts by political parties as a form of protest, are not confined to CUF in Zanzibar alone;  for records exist of election boycotts being carried out by protesting political parties in many other countries of the world.

But the main purpose of this article is to draw special attention to the negative consequences of those boycotts.  It has been said by the gurus, that “History is too serious to be left to historians alone”. Hence, It is my sincere hope, that  our readers, who may not  be historians, will  still  benefit from  this  particular  information regarding  the  past CUF election boycotts;  plus  the negative consequences that resulted there from.

The ancient Greek Historian Dionysius, is on record as having said that “History is philosophy teaching by examples”.  This presentation provides a good opportunity for us to learn from our own political history.

The relevant story                                                                                                                           It all started with the first multi-party general elections which were held in 1995, when there arose a crisis in connection with the printing of ballot papers in South Africa. The Zanzibar Electoral Commission had carried out the printing of ballot papers in South Africa. When these papers arrived in Zanzibar ready for that election, the Civic United Front   threatened to boycott the voting exercise, alleging  that the said ballot papers had been  ‘doctored’  in favour of Chama cha Mapinduzi, the ruling party.

Fortunately, that boycott was avoided, as a result of a timely intervention by UNDP, who reportedly persuaded CUF not to carry out their planned boycott.  But soon thereafter, a much more serious protest occurred at the stage of announcing the Presidential results of that election.

That protest was caused by the Zanzibar Electoral Commission’s undue delay in announcing the results of the said Presidential election for a period of four days after the counting process had been completed; while, on the other hand, the results of the House of Representatives and the Local Authorities Council members were announced immediately after the process of vote counting was completed.

This unexplained action by ZEC understandably created strong suspicions on the part of the Civic United Front, that the Presidential election results were probably being “doctored”. This suspicion intensified when the said results were eventually announced, which gave Chama cha Mapinduzi   a narrow victory margin of only 0.4 per cent.

CUF strongly protested against these results which they   refused to recognize, and ordered all its members of the House of Representatives who had won the election, to boycott all meetings of the House of Representatives, as well those who had been elected to the Union Parliament, to also boycott meeting of that House. This was therefore not an ‘election boycott’; it was a boycott of its results.

The negative consequences of election boycotts.

The actual ‘election boycotts’ stated taking place in In the 2000 general election, when the voting process was characterised by serious irregularities, all of them emanating from the Zanzibar Electoral Commission (ZEC); which included an acute  shortage of ballot papers on election day in  all 16 constituencies in the Urban West  (Mjini  Magharibi)  Region,  prompting  ZEC to nullify the results of  all these constituents,   and announced  that a  a re-run  of the nullified  election would  take place  on a later date.  And on its part, the Civic United Front, supported by some of the other opposition parties,  imposed a  boycott on the  re-run of  the election   in the said 16 constituencies of the Urban  West Region of Zanzibar. This was a boycott of the election itself.

It is the main contention of this presentation, that “boycotting elections always produces some negative consequences”.  One such serious consequence of  that particular boycott was  that it caused  many of the registered voters to stay away from their  polling stations on election day,  thus  deliberately failing to  participate in the re-run of those elections, and consequently creating a negative impact on democracy.   But that is only one aspect of the negative consequences. There are several   others, including the following:-

  • It is an abandonment of a legal obligation

In the context of the multi-party political system; political parties have an implied obligation to participate in elections; which  is created by the definition of political parties which is  provided  in the Political Parties Act (no 5  of 1992). That Act   provides as follows:

“Political party” means any organized group formed for the purpose of forming a government or a Local Authority within the United Republic through elections; or for putting up or supporting  candidates for such elections”.

In the light of that definition, it is quite clear that the primary purpose, (or indeed the   raison  d’etre)   of a political party in Tanzania),  is to participate in elections with a view to acquiring power, either  at the national or the  Local level, or both.  Hence, any group which does not have such objectives, does not qualify for recognition as a ‘political party’.  Its status changes to either a ‘pressure group’ or an ‘Interest Group’, as the case may be.

It is of courses admitted, that one major purpose of boycotting  an  election, is to demonstrate a  protest;  but that function  should not obliterate political  party’s basic  obligation to participate  in democratic elections, which is implied in the definition of a political party  quoted above.

Thus, the often repeated election boycotts, such as those which were taking place in Zanzibar on a regular basis, were an ominous indicator that this obligation was being sadly  abandoned.                                                                                                                  

The political party’s essential  role in electoral democracy.

Modern political thought generally accepts the notion that ‘political parties are absolutely essential to democracy’. This notion is itself based on the other fundamental principle, that democracy gives the majority the right to rule,  and that there is no other  way of creating an  ascertainable majority, without establishing political parties which can freely compete in elections  for the right to form a government, by presenting their different  policies and programmes to the electorate, and  endeavouring to persuade the   electorate to vote for their particular policy, or  particular programme  option.  This is the political competition in which the winning political party gets the right to form the government of the day. And this process is what is generally known as “government by political party”’ which we inherited from the British political system.

There were two most visible negative impacts in the case of Zanzibar. One was that  CUF as apolitical party, literally  phased itself out of Zanzibar’s  governance system;  and was reduced to the status of onlookers,  thus  leaving CCM  alone to govern Zanzibar totally unchallenged,  and had therefore  unwittingly returned  Zanzibar to the olden days of a one-party  state, at least  for the following five years!

The other negative consequence is that the said  boycott unfortunately denied  Zanzibaris  all the political benefits accruing from the Government of National Unity, which Zanzibar and its people had enjoyed for five years from 2010; whose  main benefit  was  the peace and tranquility which existed among the people of  Zanzibar during that period.

Both in theory and in practice, the concept of a ‘Government of National Unity’  is supported by the positive realisation that   generally, political parties in Tanzania have similar, or even identical policy objectives, namely, the achievement of a high standard of living for its people, and   giving them equal rights  opportunities and freedoms, which will enable them  to live their daily lives in a way which  is compatible with the freedoms  of others, in accordance with  the country’s  laws.

Hence, instead of quarreling over which party will be given the mandate to carry out these responsibilities, the parties voluntarily agree to put their political manpower resources together in a Government of National Unity, for the better carrying out of these identical policies for the common  benefit of our country and its people.

 Remembering  MUAFAKA  III.

When Chama cha Mapinduzi and the Civic United Front signed the Agreement known as  MUAFAKA  III  (which introduced the  concept of a Government of National Unity, or  Serikali ya Umoja wa Kitaifa  (SUK),  in Zanzibar; and  whose implementation started immediately following the 2010 general elections, it was generally believed that a lasting solution for  the endless post-election disputes  which had  previously afflicted   Zanzibar throughout its entire electoral  history which commenced in  1957; had at last been found.    It had been confidently assumed that because the root cause of these endless  post-election disputes was the struggle for power, or the strong desire of each competing political party  to win the relevant election in order to form the Government of Zanzibar;  such competitions  would become  far less intense,  if the contending parties were  assured of becoming partners in  the in-coming Government , irrespective of the nature of the election results. But alas, the CUF boycott of the re-run of the Zanzibar general election which was held on 20th March, 2016; had unfairly deprived Zanzibaris of these benefits.

“Politics is not an exact science” so declared that  famous German Statesman  named  Bismark , in his speech to the Prussian Chamber  on18th December, 1863.   It  appears  he  was damn  right!

  piomsekwa@gmail.co.   /   0754767576.

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