I’ve seen a lot of people on twitter talking about how they are disillusioned about the SWAPO party, and so they say they will boycott the elections to “send a message.” I just wanted to note quickly why I think that’s a terrible idea.

Most likely, you are not sending a message at all

The idea behind a boycott — whether organized by voters or by opposition parties — is to delegitimize the regime in power. This kind of action can be used when elections are rigged. The people say: We will not participate in this sham so that you cannot claim you represent us. If a large proportion of people stay away, the rulers will find it harder to maintain their support — be it domestic or foreign– and the regime is more likely to fall. But individuals staying away is not a boycott, it is an act of apathy. A potent message can only be felt if a large proportion of people coordinate and publicize their boycott. Otherwise this likely won’t be noticed as turnout fluctuates.

If you are sending a message, it’s the wrong one

If you stay away from the vote in an act of apathy, that’s supporting the status quo. The ruling party will be happy if all those who don’t like it don’t vote. That’ll push up their percentage. And opposition parties whose support remains unchanged still have their safe seats and benefits. If you dislike the regime, vote against it — it’s that simple.

But what are the alternatives?

Granted, this is the problem. Many people are staying home because they like neither SWAPO nor the opposition. And it is true that, whatever you think of SWAPO, opposition parties have done very little to impress. Some have an argument that is very straightforward: SWAPO must be denied the two-thirds, so just make sure to vote for any opposition party. That might be strategically appealing but I understand that morally, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. After all, voting for undeserving opposition parties just encourages them to continue as is. And especially given how hard the vote was fought for very recently, it seems callous to vote against someone you dislike rather than for someone you support. But there actually is a range of opposition parties, and voting for one of them can send a signal to the others to raise their game. And frankly, if you’re willing to throw your vote away by not voting, you might as well protest properly and throw it to a different party. Only that sends a message.

I’m not advocating that people just blindly vote for the opposition. Nor do I think you should vote for SWAPO if you don’t like them. All I’m saying is, staying away from the vote won’t send any message, except that politicians can continue as they have for a while. And it seems that’s the last thing we want.



P.S. of course if we want change, just turning out on election day is not enough. Change can be pursued within parties or outside them; there is lots of space for activism. But taking an hour or two once every few years also matters– even if we only use this right because it was earned at such a great sacrifice.