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To Boycott or not to Boycott Elections in Non-democracies – Lessons from Venezuela

By Maryhen Jiménez and Antulio Rosales

[This article constitutes the second in a symposium on opposition strategies in Venezuela. Check back in the coming days for more work.]

2014 Protest in Valencia, Venezuela / Source: Fhaidel

How should opponents in authoritarian regimes strategize to achieve liberalization and/or a transition to democracy? Should they participate in elections or, instead, boycott electoral processes to signal their dissatisfaction with a rigged system? Like many other opposition movements around the world, the opposition to Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro has faced these dilemmas throughout the process of democratic erosion in Venezuela. At times, opposition parties have participated in local, regional, presidential or legislative elections and, at others, they have decided to abstain from participating in such processes. What lessons can we draw from opposition boycotts as a strategy to achieve regime change in Venezuela?

Scholarship on boycotts argues that parties resort to this strategy when they believe that levels of unfairness of electoral processes are so high that the chances of winning are significantly low. They decide to boycott as a sign of protest. Oftentimes major opposition parties assume the costs of immediate defeat by not participating in elections hoping that this boycott can increase the probabilities of fairer conditions in the future. Opponents might believe that not being part of a rigged election process in non-democracies will contribute to delegitimize incumbents, both nationally and internationally. In some cases, this does in fact occur. For example, the 2018 non-participation of all major opposition parties in the presidential election in Venezuela led to a wide international and national rejection of Nicolás Maduro’s claim to the executive office. The historical precedence for that move goes back to December 1957, when democratic parties boycotted a plebiscite organized by the military dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez, leading to a civic-military rebellion that overthrew his regime.

Furthermore, boycotts can create pressure for incumbents to pursue electoral reforms and/or allow international observation in upcoming elections. For example, in the 2000 presidential elections in Haiti major opposition parties decided to not participate given the unlevel playing field. Even though the international community, including the US and United Nations, pressured the incumbent Jean Bertrand Aristide to respect democratic procedures, he got elected in a rigged process. Yet, as a result of this pressure and the oppositions’ boycott Aristide enacted a series of political reforms upon winning the 2000 election. It is important to highlight, however, that boycotts do not necessarily lead to political reforms and/or democratization. Scholars argue that boycotts can in fact have negative consequences for oppositions, such as a decrease in voter turnout, rise of post-electoral violence and abandonment of institutional spaces. Boycotting the 2005 legislative election in Venezuela, for example, gave Hugo Chávez the opportunity to pass several laws that undermined democracy during that five-year legislative period. Thus, when opponents decide to boycott they can also contribute to the consolidation of authoritarianism as they fail to present themselves as a viable alternative to incumbents.

We sustain that boycotting or participating in elections in non-democratic regimes do not represent key strategies on their own to trigger democratization processes.

If opponents do not create a framework for organization and mobilization or present a viable narrative and leadership, a boycott will have little chances of becoming a landmark for change. This is so because a boycott does not provide an “ideal” opportunity to create any significant linkages between opposition leaders and voters, nor does it present a meaningful alternative around which citizens can organize and mobilize. Instead, a boycott represents a rejection of an electoral event in a non-democratic context. Therefore, if the boycott is not thought of as part of a broader strategy coordinated among major domestic and international actors, its effectiveness will be low. Elections, on the other hand, however uneven and unfair they are in autocratic regimes, can lead to democratization if they are accompanied with other forms of pressure and coordination among opposing factions.

The Venezuelan case helps illustrate our argument. So far, opposition boycotts have not been accompanied by a clear post-boycott strategy. Instead, opposition parties have thus far hoped that by not participating, Chavismo would collapse due to lacking domestic legitimacy. By only focusing on boycotting a key electoral event and spending most resources in executing this move, parties have failed to develop a post-boycott strategy.

When we look at the consequences of the boycotts during the 2005 legislative elections and 2017 municipal elections in Venezuela, for example, the immediate results were further democratic backsliding and citizen demobilization. Even though some opposition leaders believed that Chávez or Maduro would fall or change their behavior because of a lack of domestic legitimacy generated by the boycott, quite to the contrary, both rulers were able to navigate these shocks to the system and could continue to increase their grip to power. By abandoning the institutional spaces, the opposition facilitated autocratization and failed to convince, organize and mobilize voters around an alternative platform.

In 2018, most opposition parties decided to boycott the presidential snap elections called by Maduro in May. These rigged elections were not recognized by the international community, as they were organized by a supra-constitutional body, the National Constituent Assembly composed of regime loyalists. Instead, over 50 countries recognised MP Juan Guaidó as the president of the National Assembly and legitimate interim president of Venezuela. While non-participation and international recognition of an “interim government” has been key in changing the internal power dynamics and boosting the opposition’s outreach and legitimacy since 2019, democratization has not yet followed.

The failure of democratization is partly due to the fact that the opposition has consistently believed that exerting short-term high pressure via an electoral boycott will make the chavista authoritarian regime crumble. It did not back in 2005, 2017, 2018 and it will probably not happen after the 2020 legislative boycott either.

The failure is also because boycotts have not created an opportunity for the opposition to establish linkages to the population around a long-term, programmatic alternative. Rather, the boycotts raise the hopes for immediate change, thereby reducing opposition parties’ incentives to invest in long-term planning. The last two boycotts (2018 and 2020), seem to have created more incentives to maintain an interim government with international backing, rather than focusing on improving electoral conditions to achieve a negotiated transition.After the 2018 boycott, the opposition’s strategy remained tied to “maximum international pressure,” especially to the use of economic sanctions as a tool to encourage regime collapse. Under Guaidó’s leadership, most opposition parties announced that they would withdraw from elections until “Maduro’s power usurpation” ceased.

The idea of conditioning the opposition’s return to elections on the end of Maduro’s power usurpation, however, has given more incentives for the regime to sustain electoral irregularities and transfer power to the military, to guarantee regime survival. While the opposition has participated in negotiations brokered by the Norwegian government, and later some in the opposition lobbied the European Union for support to achieve electoral conditions in order to participate, these negotiations were ultimately undermined by the maximum pressure strategy and Maduro’s reluctance to offer substantive concessions.

In sum, boycotts in Venezuela have so far not contributed to weakening but rather consolidating authoritarianism. Non-participation has surely helped make visible the regime’s electoral manipulation and irregularities, and it has most recently facilitated the establishment of an interim government to create international pressure. However, because boycotts have been understood as one-off actions, they have also inhibited coordination, mobilization and widespread organization to craft a transition to democracy.

Maryhen Jiménez is Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Latin American Centre, University of Oxford. Twitter @maryhenjimenez

Antulio Rosales is Assistant Professor at the University of New Brunswick. Twitter: @rosalesantulio

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