Monday, July 12, 2010 3:27:07 PM

The Role, Rights and

Responsibilities of the Opposition

Muhammad Mohsin Iqbal
June 22, 2009
In politics, the opposition comprises one or more political parties or other organized groups that are opposed to the government, party or group in political control of an area, county or state. Parliamentary opposition is a form of political opposition to a designated government, particularly in a Westminster-based parliamentary system. In this context, the opposition forms a recognized, even semi-official “government-in-waiting”. Its “opposing” can degenerate into a charade pending the eventual exchange of roles and occupation, or reoccupation, of the Treasury Benches. By their very presence in the debating chamber, parliamentary oppositions recognize the legitimacy of the system of politics, and thus may share many of the views of the government.

Genuine political opposition is a necessary attribute of democracy, tolerance, and trust in the ability of citizens to resolve differences by peaceful means. The existence of an opposition, without which politics ceases and administration takes over, is indispensable to the functioning of parliamentary political systems. If these systems are perceived as not working well – as being “seriously overloaded,” to quote a distinguished Canadian Opposition Leader, the Hon. Robert Stanfield – it may be the rights of political oppositions which are immediately and most visibly at stake, but ultimately the threat is to democratic rights and freedoms generally.

Government and Opposition in Parliamentary Democracies

The division between government and opposition is as old as political democracy itself. In Aristotle´s Athenian polity the essence of self-government was that citizens were, in turn, both the rulers and the ruled. Government could alternate among different groups of citizens, and the minority could seek to persuade a majority of its point of view by peaceful (i.e., political) means. In an age of mass politics, direct citizen democracy has been replaced, with rare exceptions, by representative systems providing for periodic elections. In turn, these electoral contests are usually dominated by a small number of political parties, which select their own candidates and leaders. What has not changed, however, in our modern liberal-democratic society is the hallowed principle that government must rest on the consent of the governed – which means, inter alia, that the minority accepts the right of the majority to make decisions, provided that there is reciprocal respect for the minority´s right to dissent from these decisions and to promote alternative policies. With the advent of representative and responsible parliamentary government, the distinction between “government” and “opposition” has become more formalized and routinized but the underlying principles have not changed. Of course it is not only in British-style Parliaments that this sort of ongoing legitimate contestation for decision-making power takes place. Every pluralistic democratic legislature contains both supporters and opponents of the executive. And, in all parts of the world, these legislatures are confronted with the problem of “executive dominance” in the face of modern demands for more and more government services.

The Role, Rights and Responsibilities of the Opposition

Some politicians argue that democracy leads to political instability but empirical studies show that the reverse is true. Without opposition parties, uncensored public criticism and the threat of being thrown out of office, rulers can act with impunity.

It is, of course, the right of a democratically elected government to govern but it is also the duty of that government to do so in a manner that contributes to the consolidation of democracy. Sustainable democracy can only grow from within a society and can neither be imposed or prescribed from outside.

On the occasion of CPA Annual Conference in Namibia 2002, Secretary General to the CPA addressed that “Governing parties need to recognize that an effective and responsible opposition is essential for the success of parliamentary democracy. The government must, therefore, provide the necessary resources, parliamentary time, information, fair access to the media and opportunities for scrutiny if the opposition is to be able to discharge its duties. Sadly, such conditions do not always exist in Commonwealth Parliaments. In a large number of countries, not only those that have only in recent years introduced a multi-party system, this is a pressing need to give greater recognition to the role of the Opposition, thereby giving them the opportunity to function properly”.

In some circumstances, Members/Legislators may find it difficult to be critical of the government while serving as members of the ruling party as there are potential conflicts between their interests as parliamentarians and their loyalty to the party hierarchy and the executive branch. Cooperation between governing and opposition Members, however, can be an essential element of constructive and efficient governance.

If, as is argued, minority parties play a vital role in the process of democratic governance, what is that role? It is not only to oppose, but to offer positive counter proposals and initiatives of its own. It is also to make the majority party aware of the minority views in a critical but constructive way.

There is a need to challenge government policies vigorously and to provide another perspective on policy issues even if there is no foreseeable hope that their party will attain power. Opposition parties need to present themselves as a credible and responsible alternative government. In doing so, they must acknowledge their responsibility not just to reflect, but also to lead, public opinion.

The opposition can often take on the role of a spoiler, exploiting all opportunities to damage the governing party and, in the process, very often failing to distinguish between harm done to its opponents and harm done to the country. In some countries, opposition parties often resort to the use of the crude, and damaging, weapons of the political strike, endless no confidence motions and boycotts. In many cases, this negative approach arises out of too singular a focus on the promotion of the opposition as an alternative government at the expense of its responsibilities in terms of Government oversight and the representation of minority views.

There is, undoubtedly, an equal responsibility on government and opposition parties to promote participatory democracy. It is also essential that there is a shared commitment to the essentials of parliamentary democracy and to making parliament work properly. There also needs to be an agreement on “how the game is played” and the development of informal channels of communication between government and opposition so that both can keep in touch, however heated the political debate.

Parliaments act as supervisory body and, even where they lack the legal power to prevent certain executive measures from taking effect, or where there is an overwhelming government majority, they can still be the source of initiatives, raise issues for debate and call the government to account for its policies. Members can exercise a degree of independence by calling ministers to give evidence before committees, carrying out comprehensive budget reviews, and holding committee inquiries.

The duty of the opposition is to oppose. Its very existence adds to the legitimacy of the government and therefore to the stability of the country. How it discharges its function, especially in an infant democracy, is therefore very important. It has been said that while the minority must be allowed to have its say, the majority must always be allowed to have its way. This is true in a sense; but in terms of fostering confidence and mutual trust, in terms of rallying all those involved in politics to the fundamental institutions and interests of the state, it is not a particularly helpful maxim.

No opposition will confer legitimacy on the government of the day and the other institutions of state, or make for greater national stability, if it is not an opposition that is loyal to the interests of the state and of the nation. And it cannot be a loyal opposition if its manner of opposing is utterly unprincipled or if it seeks to couple constitutionalism with a readiness to exploit unconstitutional means to gain power. If, in their respective roles, governing parties and opposition parties are to contribute to the greater good of their nation, they need to cultivate a relationship based on mutual confidence and trust. That confidence will enable them to agree on what aspects of the national interest transcend party divides and which can therefore be legitimately withdrawn from inter-party strife and brawls.

Parliament is fundamentally the forum wherein tolerance is institutionalized and is the instrument for the peaceful resolution of conflicts and the mediation of differences. It is the forum where the cardinal principle is respect for and acceptance of the other. This is reflected in the IPU´s Guidelines for the role and responsibility of the opposition in parliament which reaffirms that parliament is the institution that embodies society in the diversity of its composition and its opinions and which relays and channels this diversity in the political process. Its vocation is to regulate tensions and maintain equilibrium between the competing claims of diversity and uniformity, individuality and collectivity, in order to enhance social cohesion and solidarity. Its role is to legislate, inter alia by allocating financial resources, and oversee the action of the Executive. Parliament must accommodate the participation of all people in homogeneous as well as heterogeneous societies in order to safeguard diversity, pluralism and the right to be different in a climate of tolerance. Hence the importance of political forces and individuals representing the opposition being able to participate in the work of the parliament. This will require recognition of and respect for human rights in general as well as for their specific rights and duties.

Parliaments must reaffirm their willingness to engage in dialogue and consultation, revisiting their country´s past in order to avoid the extremes of intolerance. Parliament achieves its full legitimacy when its actions secure the recognition and acceptance of the people, when it rises above political differences, when it acts as a safety valve in times of tension and as an instrument for resolving conflict, and when its stability derives not just from the representative nature of the various factions concerned, but also from its credibility in channeling and settling political conflict. Legitimacy is about more than just legality of power; it is its most solid underpinning. On it depends to a large extent the political balance in any democracy.

Tolerance/dialogue in Parliament

Parliament is fundamentally the forum wherein tolerance is institutionalized and is the instrument for the peaceful resolution of conflicts and the mediation of differences. It is the forum where the cardinal principle is respect for and acceptance of the other. This is reflected in the IPU´s Guidelines for the role and responsibility of the opposition in parliament which reaffirms that parliament is the institution that embodies society in the diversity of its composition and its opinions and which relays and channels this diversity in the political process. Its vocation is to regulate tensions and maintain equilibrium between the competing claims of diversity and uniformity, individuality and collectivity, in order to enhance social cohesion and solidarity. Its role is to legislate, inter alia by allocating financial resources, and oversee the action of the Executive. Parliament must accommodate the participation of all people in homogeneous as well as heterogeneous societies in order to safeguard diversity, pluralism and the right to be different in a climate of tolerance. Hence the importance of political forces and individuals representing the opposition being able to participate in the work of the parliament. This will require recognition of and respect for human rights in general as well as for their specific rights and duties.

Parliaments must reaffirm their willingness to engage in dialogue and consultation, revisiting their country´s past in order to avoid the extremes of intolerance. Parliament achieves its full legitimacy when its actions secure the recognition and acceptance of the people, when it rises above political differences, when it acts as a safety valve in times of tension and as an instrument for resolving conflict, and when its stability derives not just from the representative nature of the various factions concerned, but also from its credibility in channeling and settling political conflict. Legitimacy is about more than just legality of power; it is its most solid underpinning. On it depends to a large extent the political balance in any democracy.

Leader of the Opposition

The Leader of the Opposition is a title traditionally held by the leader of the largest party not in government in a Westminster System of parliamentary government. The Leader of the Opposition is invariably seen as the alternative Prime Minister to the present incumbent, and heads a rival alternative government known as the Shadow Cabinet or Opposition Front Bench.

Leader of the Opposition in Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the National Assembly of Pakistan 2007

Declaration of Leader of the Opposition

(1) After the forthcoming general election and at any time thereafter the Speaker shall, declare Leader of the Opposition as early as possible after the ascertainment of the Leader of the House.

(2) After the ascertainment of the Leader of the House, the Speaker shall inform the members about the date, time and place for submission of a name for the Leader of the Opposition under their signatures.

(3) The Speaker shall declare a member as Leader of the Opposition having the greatest numerical strength after verification of the signatures of the members:

Provided that any member who is not signatory to the proposal, if he presents himself before the count, and signs the proposal, shall be included in the count.

Conclusions

An effective and responsible Opposition is essential for the success of parliamentary democracy; since the Executive has a major influence on whether the Opposition can play its proper part in the system. It is important to focus on the Government´s role; access to resources and information is critical to strengthening the capability of the Opposition and therefore to its overall credibility. It should be emphasized that parliamentary arrangements must be such as to enable the Opposition to hold the Executive to account. It is pertinent to stress the importance of freedom of access to the media and focus on extra-parliamentary activity, the role of civil society, the function of the Speaker, the character of the Opposition´s relationship with the Executive and the nature of Opposition itself.

This is very clear that there could be no strong democracy without a strong opposition. The strength of opposition is an essential element for measuring the quality of democracy. Every country has a government; only democracies have an opposition. The critical evaluation of government action is one of the essential tasks of the opposition and contributes to the quality of the political debate, thereby improving the capacity of the government and the majority to manage public affairs in the public interest as a whole.

Both the majority and the opposition have every interest to keep in mind that no one belongs to the majority or to the opposition for ever and that a majority will sooner or later be part of the opposition and vice versa. Hence, it is in the interest of the majority not to take decisions before the opposition has had the opportunity to scrutinize proposals and put forward alternatives. Conversely, the opposition should not perceive its role as a mere mechanism of obstruction and should contribute substantially to the decision-making process. Opposition is not simply a question of party politics. In a healthy democracy, opposition cuts across party lines to embrace issues on which members of both the majority and the opposition have the courage to challenge their party´s main positions.

Author is a Senior Research Officer

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