On this sad day when the murdered MP Antoine Ghanem is buried, here are some thoughts on the role of opposition in a democracy. It’s based on the political process in my home country, The Netherlands, where unanimity would be the last desire of the opposition parties.
In order to fully appreciate the often difficult role the opposition has to play in the Netherlands, it was an interesting week to watch the political spectacle over there because it was the opening of the Parliament after summer recess. Every third Tuesday of September, the so-called Day of Princes, the Queen will open the Dutch Parliament by holding a speech outlining the plans of the government for the upcoming year.
The next two days were spent on discussing the government’s plans in detail. And here is the thing: the government has a majority and can thus push through all their plans without even bothering with the opposition’s points of view. Likewise, why would the opposition bother so much trying to influence a government that can ignore them at will?
One reason only: the opposition believes in the necessity of its role in the political field as a check on unlimited execution of power by the government. Furthermore, they use these debates to profile themselves and to gain votes for the next election, which happens every four year. If you perform well as an opposition party and the people like the way you oppose to the government, they might vote for you next time around.
Quite often, political parties who lose during elections actually prefer to be in the opposition instead of joining the government coalition. Being in the opposition allows them to recover and to work on their image. In many cases, parties come out stronger after being in the opposition for a while.
And what about the ruling parties, why would they even care for the opposition’s demands? They could simply win every voting round because they hold the majority. One reason only, also: if they are seen as uncooperative, people might accuse them of abusing their powers and thus not vote for them during the next elections. There is always a price to pay for being seen as inconsiderate. Therefore, government parties have a vested interest in listening to the opposition and granting their demands whenever possible to come across as open and reasonable.
This delicate balance of listening to the opposition while implementing the government’s own agenda is what makes the opposition so valuable and powerful in any democracy. It’s the system of checks and balances that gives the opposition sufficient grounds to be quite effective, either now or after the next elections.
The opposition in The Netherlands, and in any western country for that matter, would never dream of constantly trying to reach consensus with the powers they are fighting. They’d much rather prefer belonging to the opposition. Being the underdog can generate great political pay-off if played out well.
It amazes me to no end to see the current attitude of the opposition in