PHOTO; Kenyan opposition CORD leaders at a recent press conference that trashed the Jubilee Coalition’s Score card on its achievement’s highlighted in the “State of Nation” address by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta.
By Dr. Julius Kiiza of Makerere University
There seems to be a common misconception in the
‘developing world’ that the role of
opposition parties, as the name suggests, is limited to opposing everything or anything an incumbent
government proposes or suggests.
But contrary to this, in emerging democracies around the world the
opposition has been playing an increasingly important role in shaping policy agendas, conducting
civic education, and fighting corruption, singly or in
alliance with other entities.
However this fact has been largely undermined and has remained unappreciated.
Typically ruling parties
continue to dig deep into the national treasury and use official resources to out-compete opposition parties.
Opposition parties continue to be victims of legal and political restrictions designed by the
Opposition parties in developing countries around the globe face
an un-leveled political battlefield.
Faced with these challenges what role does the opposition play in an emerging democracy?
What function does it serve?
What can it do to promote the
In order to answer this question it is important to briefly define the word “democracy.”
Ideally democracy guarantees the freedom to form and join
organizations (such as political parties); freedom of expression; the right to alternative sources of
information, guaranteed, among other things, by a free press that is unencumbered by restrictive state
legislation; right to vote or be voted into public office; regular, free and fair elections; and the right to
Interestingly, in rather recent times
democracy’s list has been expanded to include the “right to good governance.”
I think this last point opens even more avenues for the opposition to actively involve itself in the
democratic process because in many parts of the developing world the populace has been led to believe that democracy is simply the casting of
ballots every five years or so and the government is to be left to its own accord until election time comes
Within the context of the above the role of the opposition is without doubt critical and it serves very
Below I shall propose some
points which I think opposition parties should endeavor to adopt in order to keep the democratic
process alive and probably even increase their chances at the next polls.
First, the opposition should have the capacity to promote responsible and reasoned debate,particularly after an election and the “silly season”
Keeping issues alive and on the front
burner is crucial but the opposition must be able to dance the fine line between keeping them alive and
Debating is not simply screaming one’s opinion at each other but is a form interactive argument and should not be “way out there,” lacking in substance, not fully thought out, or ambiguous.
Through healthy debates the opposition might be able to promote some kind of “national
conversation” and push democratic discussion to a higher level of political development and maturity.
After an election politicians generally tend to disappear and are hardly seen again until the next
Voters are left to wonder where the people who sat with them and even ate their food had gone too.
This is even more prominent among winners on the government side who generally feel warm and snug in their victory and who later come up with the cheap excuse that they have “statutory duties” to perform.
A well organized opposition should be able to move in and fill in that void, maintaining contact and building networks with the voter-citizen,ordinary people, the oppressed, the marginalized, the
disenfranchised and demonstrating to them that democracy and politics are not limited to only casting
This creates a bond between the citizens and the opposition party and if maintained will become crucial during the next election season.
Thirdly, opposition parties should be able to act as some kind of training ground for future leaders.
In some countries opposition parties normally form “shadow cabinets” where members of the party are
designated cabinet portfolios reflecting the incumbent government.
I think this is a great idea because shadow cabinet members are given the opportunity to start acquiring their own network of contacts and developing strategies within their
specific portfolios making it an easy transition into a ministerial job should they win the next election.
Many times when a party comes to power its members are assigned ministerial portfolios and they
have no idea of what is going on or where to start.
Nothing is more detrimental to good governance than a clueless government.
“Shadow cabinet” members who enter government portfolios with at least an idea of what they should
do, I believe, has a better chance of being successful than someone who doesn’t.
Fourthly, opposition parties hold the government to account for its commissions or omissions.
It serves as a watchdog making sure that the government acts within the scope of the law, pointing out cases of corruption, nepotism and the like.
This is crucial because it keeps the government on its toes and
ensures a high level of transparency in state matters.
I mentioned in a previous article that the opposition should present itself as a viable alternative to the
incumbent government or a “government in waiting”with all the mechanisms in place to take on the reins of power.
This is important because if the
government let the voters down citizens need to know the country is in ‘safe hands’ if the opposition
becomes the government.
A well-oiled, well maintained “government in waiting” attracts not
only potential voters but new members who may want to join the party and play important roles in it.
The sixth and final point I want to make is that the opposition can strengthen the culture of democracy
from within the party itself.
The old adage that ‘charity starts at home’ comes to mind here.
An opposition that promotes open and reasoned debate during delegates’ conferences, advocate free and fair internal party elections and ensures accountable use
of party finances is more likely to carry these traits into its administration.
An opposition that suffers from internal strife and lack of internal organization simply cannot take the reins of power and be
Instead it will be a disaster and there are no shortages of these in the developing world.
The real work of the opposition begins the day after a General Election and it should not simply pack up and go home.
While in opposition political parties
should endeavor to build strong party institutions with vibrant internal democracy.
The goal is to deepen democracy within the party before it can
become champions of national democracy and good governance.
Democracy cannot thrive without a
viable and vibrant opposition.
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