The Briefing: Strong opposition a public good

A number of important readings and treatises outline the roles of opposition in a democracy – something that in Zimbabwe is either taken for granted, willfully disregarded or completely misunderstood.
These reflections are important especially given recent developments and the reconfiguration of Parliament in light of the developments in the opposition – which now has the newest appellation, namely Citizens Coalition for Change.
At the centre of these reflections is the institution of Parliament, itself an arena for argumentation and politicking in the name of representation by different parties.
Taking notes from Britain, the originators of the Westminster Parliamentary system that we in Zimbabwe and elsewhere have, there are a number of pointers of what the opposition entails in politics.
Very few have written with the clarity and precision of Indian scholar, Devendra Kumar. India, by the way, is the world’s largest democracy.
In a paper entitled, Role Of Opposition In A Parliamentary Democracy, Kumar points out that democracy is a government “by discussion and discussion presupposes arguments and counter arguments” and posits that parliamentary democracy is considered to be the best form of government because in this system.
She explains: “Parliamentary form of government is a method of arguments, discussion and decision of the majority and of accepting the majority decision providing for the right of the individual to hold a different view.
“Here, all points of views are expressed and discussed. As there could be always at least two sets of views on any subject, there could be at least two political parties. The essence of parliamentary democracy, therefore, basically lies in the fact that the majority has its way and the minority has its say.”
She goes further: “Parliamentary democracy is based on the party system of government. It is a government by criticism and exposition and therefore, it has to be governed by two political parties – a party or parties in power and a party or parties in Opposition.”
It is the role of the latter that this piece is interested in.
In Britain itself, the largest political party in the House of Commons that is not in government constitutes what is known as the official opposition and its leader assumes the title Leader of the Opposition. It is understood that the role of the Official Opposition is to question and scrutinise the work of the Government.
Gerald Schmitz, writing about Canada which also has the Westminster model, explains more about the role of the opposition.
“It is also about the right to dissent in a civilized manner,” he asserts.
“Genuine political opposition is a necessary attribute of democracy, tolerance, and trust in the ability of citizens to resolve differences by peaceful means.
“The existence of an opposition, without which politics ceases and administration takes over, is indispensable to the functioning of parliamentary political systems.”
He explains that “a vigorous opposition in Parliament can be the chief bulwark against the temptation to force majeure and bureaucratic empire”.

Zimbabwe’s opposition: Finding a purpose
There is little doubt that many in the current political set-up or within the opposition understand at least the broad and normative functions of opposition as a check on Government and the ruling party.
However, given the general paucity of ideas and the surfeit of noise instead of striving to become an alternative government, there are questions as to whether the opposition is giving the nation fair value.
By the way, in any country, a strong, accountable and vibrant opposition is a public good.
Above, we outlined the roles of opposition.
In Zimbabwe, it is also critical to realise that apart from the expectations that go with the system, taxpayers actually pay for the subsistence of opposition parties that are big enough – that is command 5 percent and more.
Just read the Political Parties Finance Act of 2001, which provides for the financing of political parties by the State (and to prohibit foreign donations to political parties and candidates – which is a story for another day!).
Incidental to the provisions above, the law provides that every political party shall be entitled in each Parliamentary year to receive from the State the sums of money that are payable to it whose candidates received at least five per centum.
The provision is interesting, and perhaps under-discussed in Zimbabwe.
The fact that big political parties receive money from the State means that they become part of the State or, in the strictest sense, civil servants.
By extension, they are employees of Zimbabweans who pay for their upkeep.
The bigger the party, the bigger the pay and so should be the responsibility!
The irony is that political parties continue to play partisan role, and think that they are only accountable to their supporters, when in fact they are accountable to all of us, taxpayers, whether we voted for it or not – the same that applies to governing party.
Opposition parties and supporters often express indignation when the ruling party or its supporters as well as neutrals take some interests in their affairs.
We will not even talk about auditing of books, which should – and would – entail the fact that the big opposition would have received State money.

State of opposition and the Opposition of State
It is interesting that the opposition is both a creature born to check Government while at the same time the State may, and should, end up checking the opposition itself.
Perhaps looking at what has happened in Zimbabwe and how the opposition continues to evolve, some of these issue begin to make sense.
The State and opposition are not far removed from each other.
Indeed, in the Zimbabwean context, this is why there are perceptible efforts by the ruling party to have a client or pliable opposition.
And, at best, the two have previously co-governed.
We hear that the possibility of another consociational arrangement is not far off.
This means that on both scores, the State owns and controls the opposition.
This should make some supporters and fanatics appear very stupid.
Obviously, ordinary people and supporters are usually stupid: even their leaders know that.

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