Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 December 2010
Issue No. 1026
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In Focus:

Galal Nassar

The essential role of the opposition

Without a culture of compromise and respecting differing opinions, it is hard for any polity to claim to be democratic, writes Galal Nassar

To appreciate how much the Egyptian people and government lost during the People's Assembly elections that were held over the past two weeks it might be useful to take a look, if only a theoretical one, at the role of the opposition in modern democracies.

Differences in human nature and ways of thought have always been instrumental factors in the rise of conflict and crisis in human societies. Many of these crises play out in the political realm and are influenced by and revolve around the shape, identity and scope of power. In modern states, the means of organising and exercising power are articulated by systems of government and these embody a particular set of values and conventions. In totalitarian systems a particular state ideology reigns supreme and is rigorously disseminated and guarded by a monolithic state party that completely dominates the political sphere, systematically inculcates the public in its ideas and values from the earliest ages through closely and centrally supervised educational systems and means of indoctrination aimed at ensuring compliancy, and regiments and mobilises society in ways that serve to promote the aims, stability and perpetuation of the regime. Such a system cannot tolerate an active opposition and often lacks a culture of opposition.

One of the most salient traits of democratic systems is a robust and organised opposition. It expresses itself in the form of political parties, civil associations, lobbying groups and a vocal public opinion. Healthy democratic societies presume a particular mode of political culture, a culture of participation in which citizens demonstrate a high level of political awareness and are strongly motivated to influence the shape of their society and government policy through electoral processes, demonstrations, petition drives and, when time and energy permit, becoming active members of political parties, lobbying groups and other civil organisations. However, in order to better understand this crucial function and value in democratic societies we should examine three chief facets: the nature, role and culture of opposition.

What is "opposition" in a democratic society and how does it emerge?

Opposition is bred from widespread political and social problems and anxieties, and manifests itself in varying degrees, from grumbling to outright rebellion. The greater the divergence in opinion between the people and government, the higher the risk of political and social instability.

Discontent with government policy can drive people to come together and rally round a collection of principles aimed at repairing what they regard as political or social damage, and which they might take a step further to formulate a more general project for reform. Initially, popular action would probably be spontaneous and haphazard, but eventually it could evolve into an organised and systematic activity that acquires institutionalised form in a political party or other civil association. Perhaps what most sets political parties apart from other associations is that they tend to have a more comprehensive agenda for society and, more importantly, they seek to come to power in order to put this agenda into effect. Other civil society associations, by contrast, tend to focus on a smaller range of issues and act as critics and monitors of government performance or as advocates and lobbyists.

In order for such sophisticated forms of organised political activity to emerge there has to be a kind of consciousness that sets it apart as a value distinct from other values in society. Some political scientists and sociologists have suggested that there has to be some sort of general state of anxiety that is bred from disturbing changes in society and the world, and that builds up over time. When it reaches a certain critical point, this state disrupts traditional types of popular political behaviour and drives people to come together and explore a new mode of collective action in the form of a political drive or movement. Opposition, then, is a specific mode of collective behaviour prompted by a phenomenon that elicits a strong convergence of opinion and feeling within a community.

What is the role of the opposition in the democratic process?

A democracy that truly subscribes to the recognition of and respect for differences in opinion provides for political plurality, this being a prerequisite for the application of democracy. The democratic process functions in the context of constitutionally legitimised political competition, for the constitution is what sets the boundaries, methods and procedures of opposition and is instrumental in the steering of political resources. Political competition passes through the electoral process, which must be fair, properly run and offer real choices if democracy is to be more than mere form.

The party or political bloc that wins a majority vote in elections is entitled to form a cabinet that will seek to turn the party platform into implementable policies while the party's members in parliament promote legislation that they believe will promote the welfare of society. Meanwhile, the party or parties that did not receive sufficient votes to form a government sit in opposition in parliament. In this position they have the right to criticise and monitor the performance of the government, to question the prime minister and other cabinet members on any matter of concern to the state and society in accordance with constitutionally and legally stipulated procedures, and to offer proposals and alternatives for rectifying what they believe to be mistakes and flaws in government policy or behaviour. At the same time, the opposition is required to recognise and respect the authority of the elected government, just as the majority respects the political minority, and it must cooperate with government for the sake of the higher public welfare. After all, the opposition is not there purely for the sake of opposition; it is an essential complementary part of the democratic order. While it may be in the opposition today, it could be in government tomorrow, and vice versa.

The role of the opposition is connected to mankind's intrinsic nature to differ. Because it is extremely rare for a large group of people to think alike and, hence, to agree, at least entirely, on a particular issue, democratic decision-making mechanisms rarely require a unanimous vote. In fact, the experiences of international organisations that required unanimous decisions prove how ineffective if not disastrous insistence on unanimity can be. The League of Nations is a case in point. Therefore, decisions are taken on the basis of different types of majority (a simple majority, a two-thirds majority or three-fourths of the members present) thereby ensuring that differences can be resolved rationally and transparently and that the work of government and the legislature can move forward and serve society. For this reason, the multi-party system presumes that political ideas and beliefs are, in fact, potentially mutable and variable, and that agreement on any issue can only occur, in most cases, by means of extensive give-and-take between different points of view, which requires avenues for free and open discussion and, of course, the opportunity to form a peaceful opposition.

The culture of opposition

The culture of opposition rests on a major pillar, which is the right to differ. Conversely, where the right to differ exists so too can a peaceful opposition. However, the culture of opposition rests on another pillar, which is the willingness to compromise, to meet the other halfway in the interests of the whole. Effectively, therefore, the democratic process is a process of reaching settlements through established rules and procedures. Regardless of their political outlooks and opinions, and however strong the differences between them, the different political parties and movements in a democratic system are presumed to recognise each other's right to share the same space in the national polity, and are resolved to coexist peacefully and resolve their differences via calm and rational dialogue, constructive criticism, free elections and the rotation of authority. Moreover, the reason why they can and are presumed to be willing to interact in this manner is because they also share and are keen to safeguard a certain set of values, not least of which are the freedom of opinion and belief, the right to free expression, the rule of law and equality before the law.

Therefore, when an opposition bloc in parliament monitors, criticises and attempts to rectify government performance it is simultaneously acting as a helper and partner, since all are involved in the same project, which is the advancement of the national welfare. This is why when an opposition strives to attain power through the constitutionally stipulated rules and channels it can be assured that the government will not seek to suppress it, but rather to protect its right to organise and to express itself, to hand over power peacefully and willingly should the opposition have the fortune to win the next elections, and to move, itself, into the opposition without stirring trouble or otherwise jeopardising the stability of the system.

It has been argued that the peaceful rotation of authority is the best means to hone government performance and sustain a vibrant political life. The best training for government is to sit in the opposition and the best training for the opposition is to have served as the government and then have a reasonable opportunity of returning to power from the seats of the opposition. A single party or coalition that remains in power for a long and uninterrupted stretch of time, especially if it faces no serious criticism, risks growing complacent and, perhaps, corrupt, while an opposition without a reasonable hope of attaining power risks fragmentation and discord, and perhaps losing touch with reality, thereby diminishing its power to offer sound and effective advice. In other words, both sides lose. In 1964, British commentators were saying that the Conservatives needed to spend time in the opposition and the Labour Party needed some time in government in order to revive its vitality and cohesion. That was after the Conservative Party had remained in power for 13 years.

A basic prerequisite for the efficacy of an opposition is sufficient cohesion to bring down a government peacefully and take its place. However, it is impossible to create an effective opposition if it contains parties from the radical right or left, for such parties not only oppose government policy but the very system of government as well. What kind of opposition is it that can only defeat a government with the aid of parties or forces with which it cannot unite in order to form a government, or which could jeopardise the democratic system if they were brought into power? To prevent such a threat, the parties to a democracy should not make the mistake of soliciting the help of those that seek its destruction or offer scope for violence. However, it would be equally wrong to violently repress marginal revolutionary groups as long as they did not resort to violence, for this too could backfire against democracy. In general, the fewest restrictions possible should be brought to bear in order to forestall a threat to the democratic way of life while all possible efforts should be made to sustain guarantees for freedom of expression for all political groups and movements that respect the law.

The existence of an opposition and a culture of opposition is an essential ingredient of a successful democracy. It rests on the notion that no one in government or outside of government is perfect; all human beings are prone to error. Hence, the vital importance of the monitoring, scrutiny and rectifying efforts that the opposition exercises. In the final analysis, the opposition in a democratic society is not engaged in a fight for survival but in a competition for the sake of the higher general welfare. It is precisely here that we can begin to appreciate the magnitude of Egypt's loss as the result of the absence of a real and effective opposition in the forthcoming parliament. The loss will be even greater if the opposition abandons the field entirely and leaves it exclusively to the National Democratic Party. It must realise that its workplace is not confined between the walls of the parliament building but rather extends the length and breadth of Egypt, as long as it behaves legally. The opposition is and should remain an integral part of the political system and should not cave in to attempts, deliberate or otherwise, to drive it away.

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