Democracy needs a strong opposition

Hasnat Abdul Hye | Wednesday, 25 May 2022

She is not the type who, either by force of habit or through the subterranean working of innate nature, indulges, even if occasionally, in sensational and dramatic pronouncements, ruffling the feathers of others, including peers. But when Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of US House of Represntative and a red-blooded Democrat, matter-of factly said before the press that 'America needs a strong Republican party', it sounded like a bombshell,  reverberations from which  could be heard from the ranks of her party, through the media and  to the members of the  party mentioned. While a few were amused, not a few looked at her in disbelief. Did she say it in jest or was she serious about what she said? That was the first reaction among the majority of those who heard her. If she uttered the words in earnest, what on earth did she actually mean?

By any measure of political conduct and electoral strategy, it is a contrarian statement coming from a senior member of a major political party, one that is presently in power by virtue of having its nominee elected as president of the country, though faces an uncertain outcome in the next presidential election. The Speaker could not have referred to the numerical strength of the Republican party, her party (Democratic) has a razor-thin majority in both Houses of the Congress. With the plunging popularity of President Biden, the prospect of the Republican party of having its nominee in the White House after the next presidential election does not   appear at present to be a long shot. Similarly bright appear to be the prospects of the Republican party capturing the majority of seats in the Congress in the mid-term election that will be held after a few months. Given this electoral strength of the Republican party, which should be obvious to Nancy Pelosi, she must have had something different than the electoral strength in her mind when she mentioned ' a strong Republican party'. Strong in what sense, if not in terms of electoral votes? The question begs for an answer.

To have some clue to the answer it may be helpful to have a quick look at the recent political developments and events  in America. The most riveting event that drew the attention of the political observers and the liberal electorate was the storming of Congress on January 4, 2021 by ultra-rightist supporters of former President Donald Trump, intent on forcibly overturning the results of the presidential election of November, 2020.The mayhem that followed inside the precincts of Congress left furniture and documents vandalised and four law enforcers killed at the hands of the marauding rioters. The Democratic Party members of Congress, after President-elect Joe Biden took his oath, decided to constitute a  bi-partisan Congressional Committee to investigate into the unprecedented incident of rioting and acts of vandalism inside the citadel of law-making so that those responsible are held to account, thereby setting  an example to deter similar criminal conduct by law breakers in future. The second occasion of refusal by the Republican party to have bi-partisan agreement was when the nomination of the African-American candidate to the vacant post of the Supreme Court came up for hearing and confirmation in the Senate. Instead of a bi- partisan support for Ketanji Jackson, the first black woman justice of the Supreme Court, the Republicans not only took a partisan stand but tried to smear her credentials as a tried and tested justice, palpably on the ground of her colour. Earlier, the bill for the stimulus package to address the economic consequences of Covid pandemic was subjected to lengthy debates by the Republicans in both houses of the Congress which delayed the passing of the bill even in its truncated version. Most recently, the Republican members in the Senate refused to vote for a bill proposed by the Democrats to make a likely Supreme Court ruling overturning the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision of the court in 1973 that made abortion by pregnant women legal in the country. All these stances taken by the Republican party in recent times have exasperated the Democratic party, convincing its members that the Republican party is not only opposing policies tabled by the Biden Administration on the basis of its right of centre ideology but seems to be indulging in 'negative' politics through knee-jerk reactions. In the view of the Democrats, 'negative politics' is manifest when the Republican party refuses to join in bi-partisan policy decisions on issues of national interests on narrow partisan grounds, an interpretation anodyne enough to be accepted  by  many. When the Congress Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, lamented the weakness of the Republican Party and desired that it be 'strong', she may have these instances of knee-jerk opposition in her mind. As a corollary to this thought she might have also regretted the embrace of the Republican party of the emergent force of extreme rightists, nativists and white supremacists that arguably represent the new-fangled populism of the right. She feels, in her righteous mood like many others in the country, that the Republican Party should make a distinction between issues that call for unanimity because of exigent national interests and those which allow a partisan stand in affirmation of the ideology that the party holds. To her, this deficit in the proper policy stance which makes bi-partisan policy making in extraordinary circumstances difficult and leads  to embrace extremism for electoral gains, and reveals the weakness of the Republican party. It is from this point of view that she made the historic statement about American democracy's need for a 'strong Republican party.'

If one substitutes opposition party for 'Republican party,' the statement by the Speaker of American Congress appears relevant to many countries having multi-party system where opposition parties routinely oppose the party in power. In the United Kingdom (UK), the exit from EU (Brexit) that resulted from popular vote in a referendum on that single issue does not preclude the possibility of the Labour party from applying for membership when it comes to power. Across the English channel, in Europe there is no unanimity between or among the parties in power and opposition parties in France, Germany and Netherlands on national issues like immigration or membership to EU or NATO. In multi-party systems like these countries there is very little scope for unanimous policy agreements on national issues. Making the opposition parties 'strong', a la Nancy Pelosy i.e., making them amenable to 'bi- partisan (multi-party) policy decisions, is nothing short of wishful thinking. But to function as responsible and viable democracies  these countries need to strengthen at least one among the many parties as the potential party to be in charge of governance (as in the UK) or at least  a party strong enough with elected members to form government with one or two smaller parties in coalition. On the other hand, in order to be 'mainstream' in national politics, political parties must have agendas in their manifestos that do not diverge to the extreme and have a common ground for working in coalition with other parties. One should hasten to add that what appears as 'extreme or in the fringe' may someday become mainstream, winning popular votes to form government, singly or in coalition, with another party. The example for this that comes to mind is the Green Party in Finland that is in power at present with a woman prime minister. On the other hand, woe betides the day when an extremist right party, like the Nationalist party in France or the Alternative party for Germany (Afd) forms a government, taking regressive measures. Whether or not extremist parties in opposition will gain in strength to capture power will, however, depend on the success or failure of mainstream parties (Republican or Socialist parties in France, and Christian Democratic or Christian Social Union in Germany) to govern the country in a way that promotes 'the greatest good of the greatest number'. As long as the incumbent party has majority in legislature opposition for opposition' s sake will merely be a pin prick or at worst delay the decision making process.

In emerging and developing countries, like India and Bangladesh, democratic governance with stability  within a multi-party system  depends on two or three major parties becoming strong enough to form government  as a single party by turn (voted to power or in opposition waiting for popular verdict) with a  populist agenda. There are, however, several preconditions for this to become a routine reality. Firstly, parties should have leaders with leadership qualities, qualifications of head and heart and impeccable integrity. As a corollary to this, the tradition of dynastic politicking should be left where it belongs now, in the historical archive. Secondly, parties, both in power and in opposition, should practise democracy internally, regularly electing their leaders, from local to national levels rather than being handpicked by top leadership. Thirdly, a party in power should allow adequate space to opposition parties to propagate their programmes (sans extremist ones) and campaign for their candidates. This should include allowing  writing of past political history objectively without any pressure to airbrush the record of good work by a  party that governed the country once and is now opposition. Humiliating a party in opposition with distorted and manipulated account of its past can serve only to make it indignant and strong in blind fury. A strong opposition, as implied by Nancy Pelosi in the American context, requires a different kind of makeover in newly emergent and developing countries because of the inevitable tradition of 'tyranny of the majority' that electoral victory ushers in. In these countries of traditional  politics of vengeance, an opposition party or parties will be as  'strong' in terms of constructive opposition and biding time to form government in future while  pursuing  a constructive ( co- operative) role as the party in power allows it (them)  to have political space to operate. Apart from enabling opposition parties to hold meetings, rallies and bring out peaceful processions, having 'political space' implies that the members and leaders of opposition parties are not harassed with trumped up allegations or incarcerated on flimsy grounds. An extreme example of thwarting genuine opposition is to nurture 'domesticated opposition', an ersatz one that is allowed to go through the motion of being in opposition with the blessing of the party in power. In Bangladesh a military dictator put up such a puppet opposition in the not too distant past in order to have a semblance of democracy for international consumption. Unfortunately, the legacy of ersatz (Ershad!) opposition survived, going through  a new incarnation. What is worse, compulsion to be in power continues to marginalise  and haemorrhage opposition

The long and short of this is to say that 'strong' opposition parties in a large majority of fledgling democracies depend both on the parties themselves  and the one in power at a particular point of  time. This is the major difference between the concept of a ' strong Republican party' in America that Nancy Pelosy had in mind and 'strong opposition parties' in emerging and fledgling democracies. As a generalisation, it is a truism to say that democracy needs strong opposition. But the meaning of 'strong opposition' varies from old democracies to nascent ones where democracy is often 'in progress'. In the case of the first, opposition can become strong on its own, given intrinsic political will. But for opposition to be strong in the case of the second category, a helping hand or at least neutrality from the party in power is required more often than not. If in an old democracy like America the opposition party is called out to be 'strong' to perform its complementary role in governance, the need and urgency for the same is many times over in emerging and developing countries. To reiterate again, the act of strengthening the opposition in the latter instance devolves on both the party in power and the opposition waiting in the wings.


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