Friday, September 21, 2007

The role of opposition in democracy

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 Lebanon: they desperately want to be part of the system they are opposing against. The situation would never have gotten so much out of hand if only they’d realize how important their role as opposition is. Don’t be equal to your opponent, be proud you’re different. The need for consensus turns politics into a big ol’ melting pot, soaks up any individuality and results in a tasteless, muddy soup nobody cares for.


Jeha said...

We have 2 problems here;

1- We're a sectarian/clanic society. The system is such that the clan comes first, Lebanon only serves to "nurture" the clan.

2- Lebanon's is a "zero sum game", with a "winner takes all", centralized system.

3- This opposition's goal is Syria; some of it are after a "Greater Syria", others after some end of world delusion. Yet others are just spiteful.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Jeha but wish to add that your post presumes that this "opposition" is even desirous of being a true "opposition" as you or i know it. They are in fact and effect "obstructionists" PERIOD.

If they gave a damn about you or i or the country i would be msot surprised.


Super Dude said...

The term opposition is misleading here, because you are comparing an established democracy, to 'democracy' Lebanese style.

Reimer, do you believe, after all this time in Lebanon, that there is a democratic process? Democracy is used as a façade, just like everything else in Lebanon.

Most Lebanese are facinated with fancy terms and labels, thats why they make good sales people and marketers, and why they are easily influenced (impressed) by well spoken, articulate bullshit sellers. Logic and common sense take the backseat, dazed by something (I could not describe).

The really facinating question is: how did a group of people, collectively called the Lebanese, develop such psyche.

Jeha? :)

Ms Levantine said...

Jeha's points 1 and 2 should be in the same paragraph. Sectarian democracy is a zero-sum game.

And the winner does not take all, rather sect A can only gain ground at the detriment of sect B,C, or (and)D...

As a result sectarian leaders thrive on the zero-sum game to stay in power.

There are no national parties in Lebanon. And Taef only institutionalzed the sectarian system.

The concept of majority and oppostion can only exist in a national framework.

What we have in Lebanon are loose alliances bet. fragmented sectarian groups.

We are not The Netherlands yet, in fact I sometime wonder if we are anything at all.


Jeha said...

A quick note;

1 and 2 do not have to be directly related; there was an equilibrium of sorts whenever we had small "city states" as during the Phoenician times. There could be some local "clan equilibriums", with some level of freedom but short of full democracy.

Today, it is a "zero sum" game because Lebanon is still organized today as a city state around Beirut.

Skender said...

When people vote along sectarian lines, democracy can't work. That's what we see in Belgium. Forming a government is becoming impossible in Belgium, because Flemings and Walloons have a totally different vision on the future of their country. But in the end, Flemish and Walloon politicians always have to come to some sort of a compromise in which both sides loose. As a result, public opinion in both parts of the country becomes more radical and the next negotiations become even more difficult.

I guess this situation is more or less comparable to that in Lebanon. Although there are no bombings in Belgium and it's not likely that there will be in the future. And we don't have neighbouring countries who want to seize our territory.

Gerard said...

October 23: and another month to decapitate the majority...