Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Role of Opposition Parties in a Democracy

1. Introduction
The purpose of my writing is to examine the role of opposition parties in the democratization process and also to outline what political parties do in mature democracies and what democratic practices Malaysia need to adopt into meaningful democracies. The aim is not to document the good or ugly things political parties are doing in Malaysia.
2. Role of Opposition
In a democracy, opposition parties perform several important functions. These include:
2.1. Interest aggregation: Political parties are important organs for aggregating the interests of the political community. Interest aggregation often culminates in the articulation or projection of certain preferences, values and ideologies into the policy and lawmaking process (example in Parliament) and in the budgeting process.
2.2. Promoting responsible and reasoned debate. This promotes “national conversation” and pushes democratic discussion to a higher level of political development and maturity.
2.3. Maintaining touch with the voter-citizen and demonstrating the relevance of politics to ordinary people, that is, the oppressed, the marginalized, the disenfranchised.
2.4. Opposition parties hold the government to account for its commissions or omissions (example. Tony Blair’s Labour Party was re-elected with less support).
2.5. Parties present a viable alternative to the incumbent government by designing alternative ideas, principles and policies for governing society. Should the party in power let the voters down, the “government-in-waiting” takes over the reign of power – through free and fair elections.
2.6. Parties act as a training ground for future leaders. Shadow cabinet ministers, for example, typically conduct serious party business in their designated portfolios.
2.7. Parties strengthen the culture of democracy within the party and the political community in general (by, for example, promoting open debate during delegates’ conferences, promoting intra-party democratic elections and ensuring accountable use of party finances).
2.8. Parties work with the Electoral Commission, the mass media and civil society organizations to monitor and improve the quality of voter registration, civic education and electoral transparency.
2.9. Finally, opposition parties are the unpaid but dedicated principal researchers for the government in power.
3. Democracy in Malaysia: Discourses and Practices
While opposition parties play an increasingly important role in shaping policy agendas, people's well-being, and fighting corruption, singly or in alliance with NGOs, they continue to face challenges that constrain the democratization process. Opposition parties continue to be victims of legal and political restrictions designed by the incumbent government. Ruling parties (Barisan Nasional) typically continue to dig deep into the national treasury and use official resources to out-compete opposition parties. The ruling parties weaken the party system by sponsoring and or bribing selected leaders of the opposition to support the ruling party. What a shame........................
4. The solution for Good Democratic Governance
The right to good democratic governance is guaranteed by the separation of powers between the executive, the legislature, the judiciary, and the civil service; to build institutions that guard against arbitrary rule via a system of checks and balances.
What I am trying to raise is in the democratic theory, political parties are voluntary organizations that are supposed to promote democracy. Whereas the judiciary, the legislature and the judiciary promote horizontal accountability, vertical accountability is promoted by political parties, which link the people and government. Parties organize campaigns, recruit candidates and mobilize the political community to participate in the selection of office bearers. The goal of party activism is to build institutions and shape public politics, policies and laws that impact the rights and welfare of the political community.
In competitive multi-party politics, the party that is elected to form government seeks to enact into law a number of policies and programs (often times consistent with their election manifesto). Opposition parties are free to criticize the ruling party’s policies, ideas and programs and offer alternatives. Democratic parties recognize and respect the authority of the elected government even when their party leaders are not in power. This is possible because democratic societies are committed to the values of tolerance, cooperation and compromise (Dahl, 1971; UNDP, 2002). Democracies recognize that consensus building requires compromise and tolerance.
The notion of a loyal opposition is central to any democracy. It means that all sides in the political debate – however deep their differences – share the fundamental democratic values of freedom of speech, the rule of law and equal protection under the law. Parties that lose elections become the opposition. The opposition, then, is essentially a “government-in the- waiting.”
For a culture of democracy to take hold, opposition parties need to have the confidence that the political system will guarantee their right to organize, speak, dissent and or criticize the party in power. Opposition parties also need to be assured that in due course, they will have a chance to campaign and re-seek the peoples mandate in and through regular, free and fair elections.
5. Conclusion
While opposition parties in today’s mature democracies approximate the democratic roles outlined herein above, the situation in Malaysia is substantially poorer. A major reason for this is that ruling parties (Barisan Nasional) become so identified with the government bureaucracy, the legislature, the judiciary, the army, the police, the media and even the treasury that their separate character collapses almost completely. Moreover, ruling parties typically use official resources to stifle opposition parties and perpetuate themselves in power.
The solution lies in building strong party institutions with vibrant intra-party democracy. The goal is to deepen democracy within opposition parties before parties can become champions of national democracy, human rights and good governance. A vibrant civil society is also important in the search for a new political dispensation. But civil society actors supplement rather than supplanting political parties in their cardinal roles – interest aggregation, translating policy preferences into public policies, fighting corruption, checking abuse of public office and, in general, sustaining the struggle for good governance and human rights promotion.


(Main Source: The Role of Opposition Parties in a Democracy Julius Kiiza, PhD, Makerere University Department of Political Science and Public Administration; A paper presented at the Regional Conference on Political Parties and Democratisation in East Africa 25 – 27 August, 2005)

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