The Problem with Political Boycotts

Iranian women protest during the presidential election, 2009. (AP)

Iran’s opposition movement has called for a boycott of today’s parliamentary elections. Boycotts have a long pedigree as an effective tool to achieve political change. The most famous in American history was of course the Montgomery boycott that desegregated the municipal bus system. Visiting Robben Island in 2003 I was personally thanked (as if I had anything to do with it) by former inmates for the Western economic sanctions of South Africa that put pressure on the white regime to abandon Apartheid. Israel is currently the target of a nascent but growing international economic boycott to end its generational occupation in Palestine.

But these are separated from the Iranian experience because they are specifically economic countermeasures (Iran is also under increasing pressure from the United States and the European Union over its nuclear program). Economic boycotts and sanctions work because they decouple the relationship that makes economies work — the exchange of goods and services for money or other goods and services. Without this connection, economic relationships shrivel and die. Pain sets in and political leaders begin to pay attention.

Unfortunately political boycotts uncouple relationships but to precisely the opposite end. Political relationships depend utterly on power dynamics to perpetuate social change.  A boycott ends the political relationship with the public in the arena.  It closes the flow of power between a political group (for example, the opposition) and those it is trying to harness for its ends.

A boycott effectively cedes the political arena to your adversary, or in the case of Iran, your adversaries. With this election, not just the opposition will lose.  Others have a stake. Supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are locked in a fight. By refusing to contest these elections in some creative way, the opposition allows these two juggernauts to claim the mantel in the end — not against the opposition but from each other. By participating, the opposition could remain part of this process.

An alternative path to delegitimizing the parliamentary elections is to organize, participate, and flood the polls with opposition supporters. Pick the least worst candidate, organize a write-in campaign, protest at the polls in large numbers.  Even if they couldn’t name real candidates for fear of their safety, even by failing to win, the opposition could demonstrate, once again, that the election is rotten and corrupt. It would be another nail in the coffin of the regime.

Politics requires labor and it demands engagement — as boxers engage their opponents, at close quarters — to fight to win. Indeed, sports metaphors are apt here. A boycott abandons the field to your opponent; a forfeit may not be a loss per se but it counts as a win nonetheless. To stretch the metaphor, even a close loss or loss on a technicality (the referee makes a bad call or, in this case, was bought off), the spectators in the stand have a chance to judge how hard you fought. A moral win counts more with the viewing public and helps with home field advantage at the next fight. The power dynamic is played between the team and those watching the game.

Of course I hesitate to double-guess the organizers of the Iranian parliamentary boycott, who understand their own country and are taking extraordinary risks against a murderous regime. They believe that a mass boycott of an obviously rigged election will delegitimize the last vestige of democratic rule in Iran. There is obvious popular support for this path after the violent suppression of the 2009 Green Revolution.  And it is equally clear that the Supreme Leader fears low turnout could undermine his rule. But unlike in sports, the Supreme Leader controls virtually everything else that matters in Iran: the security services, the media, and perhaps most important, the metanarrative. If turnout collapses, he will simply claim it was due to intimidation by imperialist powers (Israel, the United States, Great Britain). It is difficult to underestimate how important this control is and how devastating it may be to the opposition.

But I believe my point still stands, in Iran and elsewhere. Political boycotts decouple the transmission cable necessary to power real social change. Opposition leaders should think hard about channeling their energies into negative organizing. Positive engagement, as risky as it may be, will lead to positive results in the end.

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