Reformists primer: Never boycott an election

By calling for a boycott of Iran's deeply flawed parliamentary elections last month, reformers took a stand for principle - and yet effectively failed that principle.

What reformers often don't recognize is that the act of participation matters more than its immediate result. When they seize the moral and political initiative, candidates "win" even if they lose the election.

Though the reformist movement is far from over, it was marginalized by Iranian conservatives, who will seek to divert questions about their regime's legitimacy by directly challenging the loyalty of adversaries. If the best defense in politics is a good offense, the hard-liners in the Iranian regime clearly have the upper hand.

Advocates of democracy throughout the Middle East are frustrated. If reformists cannot compete in Iran, where can they compete?

The challenge faced by democracy advocates in Iran is familiar to reformers throughout the Middle East, as well as in places like Haiti, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine. Wherever there is struggle to overcome a legacy of authoritarianism, protagonists of change need plans that can help them to mobilize for democratic transformation.

The following principles can help make the most of opportunities presented when narrowly based regimes seek legitimacy through the electoral process:

• Act as if the rhetoric of democratic elections is sincere. Run nonviolent "guerrilla" campaigns or mock campaigns. Urge voters to write in candidates who've been kept off the ballot. Use the "elections game" as an opportunity to change the rules of political engagement.

• Build solidarity among democracy activists and develop a common vision. Promote electoral participation at all levels - local, regional, and national - and in all professional forums. Make sure that there is an independent candidate participating in every race.

• Unite behind candidates willing to take a principled and consistent stand for change, even if it might mean "losing" the election. It does not matter who is carrying the flag of reform, as long as the flag itself is raised high.

• Craft a clear, believable, and affirmative message, and boldly bring it to the people. Win their confidence by courageously talking about issues they care about, including unemployment, election integrity, and corruption.

• Work to revitalize and activate social networks. Meet with professional associations, writers' unions, schoolteachers, and students. Visit coffee shops, specialty stores, markets, funerals, and festivals.

• Publicize positions on the issues and seek to catalyze grass-roots public discourse. Make posters with accurate information and appealing mottos, and distribute leaflets. Encourage the people to talk with candidates as well as among themselves about what they expect from their government.

• Tap the energy and hope of younger generations. Involving the youth in the campaign means working for change in the future, even if the present campaign does not lead to electoral victory. Youth involvement can also help to renew the hopes of older generations.

• Use the campaign to teach people habits of democratic citizenship. Help constituents find a common purpose that transcends fear; passive submission to machine politics; and rivalry on the basis of tribal, ethnic, or sectarian identity.

• Court attention from the regional and international media. Efforts to broadcast the aims of independent candidates should not come at the expense of grass-roots political activism, but they can play a valuable role in drawing attention to instances of repression and electoral manipulation.

• Always remember that a good campaign is run on issues, not personalities. Winning and losing matter far less than public education that strengthens the cause of political reform. By focusing on issues, candidacies can come to symbolize popular demands for performance, integrity, and accountability.

By adhering to these principles, independent candidates can run compelling campaigns even if elections are rigged. Boycotts dissipate energy and foster apathy and disillusionment. Participation - even in an electoral contest that can't be won - draws attention to the exclusionary practices of established regimes.

To be effective, those who promote democratic change must connect with the people and convince them of that fundamental principle of nonviolence: The power of a government ultimately depends upon the consent of the governed. Withdrawing consent doesn't make a regime less oppressive, but it defeats the purpose of oppression. When people refuse to cooperate with abusive power, they discover their own power to dissolve coercion's social basis.

We've seen serious electoral campaigns - in Yugoslavia and Georgia, for example - bring victory to democratic forces even when the immediate result at the polling station is "defeat."

Foreign powers can't bring democracy to countries ruled by authoritarian governments. Only authentic democrats can bring democracy, by inspiring people to demand it and practice it.

Abdul Aziz Said is a professor of international relations at American University. Nathan C. Funk is a visiting assistant professor at George Washington University.

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