The role of opposition parties is critical in determining the level of accountability by governing parties and governments, the effectiveness of public service delivery and the overall quality of a country’s democracy.
Opposition parties provide alternative visions, policies, and leaders to the governing party. They scrutinise government decisions, policies, and actions – and play oversight over the Executive and the public administration. They defend the voters’ interests – not only their constituencies but all the country’s voters.
Opposition parties’ ability to show the electorate they are credible alternative governments is crucial to the credibility of the democratic system. A democratic system is significantly undermined if the opposition does not offer any credible alternatives to the governing party, is invisible in the public debate or does not have a public profile beyond during elections.
Without clear alternatives offered by opposition parties, a country cannot have constructive debates on policy options, the direction of the country and the future. In fact, the strength, effectiveness, and quality of a democracy largely depend on the opposition parties’ efficiency, relevance, and ability to credibly show they are ready to govern. This means the strength of the opposition in a country play a key role in the quality of democracy, effectiveness of the state and the levels of corruption.
In most Western democracies, opposition parties are accepted as part of the democracy. In fact, the presence of opposition parties is “highly institutionalised and surrounded with legal protections” (Dahl 1966).
Opposition parties are formally recognised, entitled to public resources, and has the freedom to criticise the sitting government, access the public media and organise openly (Dahl 1966; European Commission 2010). At the same time opposition parties must conduct their operations within the prescripts of the country Constitutions, laws, and parliamentary rules – and with integrity.
Opposition Party Role in Mature Democracies
Opposition parties in many mature democracies are well institutionalised (Arter and Kestila-Kekkonen 2014; Barbera and Barrio 2019; Harmel, Svasand and Mjelde 2018; Huntington 1968; Janda 1980; Randall and Svasand 2002). Institutionalised parties have well-developed organisational structures, deeply rooted in their constituency, with clear policies and ideologies and core followers who vote for the party, not just its current leadership.
The parliamentary systems of many mature democracies are influenced by the Westminster system – the parliamentary form originating in the British parliamentary system. In many Western democracies, the role of opposition parties is officially recognised as holding governments accountable (Dahl 1966; European Commission 2010).
In Western democracies, the role of the opposition parties is widely accepted to be one of questioning the governing party, holding its leaders and the Executive accountable and, more importantly, presenting themselves credibly as alternative governments and opposition party leaders as the country presidents in-waiting.
The opposition holds the Executive accountable by scrutinising government actions, decisions, and policies. The scrutiny of the Executive is conducted both in and outside Parliament. By playing an oversight role over the government, the opposition also ensures a separation of power between the Executive and the legislatures (Gregory 1990).
The role of the main opposition is often formalised. In Portugal, for example, there is a law formalising the role of the opposition (European Commission 2010). The leader of the opposition is also often formal position. They question the government’s decisions, policies, and actions. Their role is to play an oversight role over the government of the day.
Many mature democracies also have laws that protect opposition parties from prosecution, banning and dissolution by majority parties based on political motivations or from prosecuting individual public representations from oppositions for political reasons, whistleblowing and criticisms of the governing party or country leader.
Outside Parliament, opposition parties issue press statements, call press conferences, appear in interviews, and write opinions in the major media, expressing their views or criticisms of the governing party. Opposition parties have free access to the media – including public media. The opposition parties, therefore, build their identity as governments in waiting through engagements in the parliamentary processes and the media.
Entrenched Special Powers of the Opposition in Mature Democracies
In mature democracies, opposition parties scrutinise governing parties and leaders mainly through Parliament, using formal processes such as Question Time, Budget Debates, Parliamentary Replies and No Confidence Motions.
Parliamentary Rules of Procedure can formalise the oversight role of the opposition. In many Western democracies, country Constitutions stipulate that Parliamentary Rules of Procedure – which entrenches the role of protection of the opposition, can only be changed by two-thirds majorities. For example, the Swedish Constitution states that the Rules of Procedure can only be changed by a constitutional amendment or by a three-quarter majority (European Commission 2010). In some democracies, such as Germany and Turkey, allows for judicial review of Parliamentary Rules of Procedures, which disadvantages opposition parties (Laundy 1989; March and Olsen 1995).
Members of opposition parties are also part of parliamentary committees, where they scrutinise activities of the Executive, new policies and new laws coming from the governing party. The main opposition party appoint a shadow cabinet, with a shadow portfolio mimicking that of the governing party Cabinet. The opposition’s shadow Cabinet respond with alternative policies to that of the government. The opposition’s shadow Cabinet is the government in waiting when the governing party falters.
In some Western democracies, the opposition has special oversight powers. They can initiate inquiries into government conduct. In Norway, the one-third of the members of the Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Control can call for a public inquiry into government decisions, conduct or policies. In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, only 20 MPs are required, out of 120 to call for public inquiries into government conduct, thus allowing the opposition, even if they are a small minority to hold government accountable and prevent governing party majorities steamrolling them (European Commission 2010).
In some mature democracies there is a provision for opposition parties to block certain majority parliamentary decisions, such as policies deemed to be of critical national interests – this is to prevent the majority party from using its majority to prioritise self-interest issues, rather than the broader public interest. In such cases, majority parties need a “qualified majority”, meaning they need a majority that is beyond a simple majority, usually two-thirds or three-quarter majority. Such “qualified majority” provisions are to ensure that majority secure a reasonable consensus with the opposition to change or introduce critical national interest policies, such as those impact on fundamental rights and freedoms. It is also another way to formally empower opposition parties.
In many mature democracies there is the possibility for opposition parties to take policies pushed through by majority governments for constitutional review. For this to be successful many mature democracies have often set low thresholds for the numbers of Parliamentary members that needed to be in favour for taking policies for constitutional review to empower the opposition to do so. In Germany, only one-quarter of MPs are required, in Austria one-third and in France 60 MPs out of the 577-member national assembly.
Opposition Parties in Africa and Developing Countries
However, in many African and developing countries opposition parties are often seen as the enemy by governing parties (Gumede 2017). They are deprived of public resources, access to public media and often prosecuted using supposedly democratic institutions, such as courts, police services and parliaments (Bulmer 2021; Melber 2007). This has been the case in countries as varied as Tanzania, Turkey to Malaysia (Robinson and Hoffman 2009; Wilks 2023; Mugabi 2023; Lemière 2020). Governing parties often do not consult the opposition on decisions, policies, and laws – or bring them into their confidence in matters of public interest.
In many African autocratic, military, and religious regimes opposition parties are banned. Not many African and developing countries have a political culture of tolerance for opposition parties, freedom of expression and a diversity of opinions. Many governing parties and leaders in Africa and developing countries prosecute, ban or dissolve opposition parties and leaders deemed critical of the ruling party and leader. In many African and developing ruling parties criminalise political opposition, freedom of expression and whistleblowing, prosecuting genuine democratic opposition as criminal activities.
In the most recent elections, including in Uganda, Tanzania and the Ivory Coast, as usual saw ruling parties and leaders harassed opposition parties and leaders, suppressed the media, civil society, and electoral oversight organisations and on occasion closed down the internet, social media networks and messaging services.
Opposition parties in African and developing countries have often been forced to take to the streets to protests government policies, as they are sidelined in Parliament and repressed outside it. More recently opposition parties, in countries such as South Africa, Kenya and Turkey, have increasingly used the courts to challenged governing party decisions that undermine democratic rights, freedoms and inclusive development.
In African countries governed by dominant liberation and independence movements, many citizens often vote for these movements based on their past anti-colonial and anti-apartheid roles, and not on based on the present performance (Bulmer 2021; Gumede 2017; Melber 2007).
In some African and developing countries, parties, both governing and opposition, are organised along ethnic, religious, or regional lines. Voting in such cases often become an ethnic, religious, or regional census, rather than for holding governing parties accountable for their performance in government.
There have been notable successes in some African and developing countries in building well-institutionalised, policy-focused, nationally inclusive with diversified leadership opposition parties. Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT) is a former opposition party that institutionalise itself and gained power because of that. Seychelles Linyon Demokratik Seselwa, or Seychelles Democratic Alliance, has successfully institutionalise itself when it was an opposition party, and subsequently won power in 2021.
In Cape Verde, the Movement for Democracy, also transformed itself into an institutionalised party with proper structures, coherent policies, and a crop of leaders, and eventually secured power. In Zambia, trade union leader Frederick Chiluba in early 1990s established the Movement for Multi-party Democracy in alliance with trade unions and civil society and was elected into power.
In Zimbabwe the Movement for Democratic Change similarly like Zambia’s Movement for Multi-party Democracy also formed a movement-party, by setting up branches across the country, prioritising ethnic inclusivity and partnering with civil society and community groups. The MDC was cheated out of an electoral victory by the governing Zanu-PF. Crucially, all these opposition parties build movement parties with branches across the country, targeting voters across ethnical and regional lines and allying with civil society and community groups to build party movements (Gumede 2017).
In South Africa, the Democratic Alliance, Economic Freedom Fighters and more recently ActionSouth Africa appear to be prioritising setting up branches, affiliate organisations and specialist policy structures. In Zimbabwe, the Citizens Coalition for Change has been working to institutionalise its organisation, structures, and policies.
Nevertheless, the challenges for opposition parties are therefore often starkly different in many African and developing countries than in Western and mature democracies.
Role of Opposition Parties in African and Developing Countries Dominated by former Liberation and Independence Movements
Liberation and independence movement parties which govern many African and developing countries are often well institutionalised (Gumede 2017). They have well-defined structures – branches, affiliates, and election machinery. They also have strong ideologies, deep roots in society and support based on their past record in struggles for independence and liberation. In some cases, opposition political parties which also fought in the independence or liberation struggle, or which were aligned with former colonial and apartheid powers are also well institutionalised (Gumede 2017).
In many cases opposition parties in Africa are poorly institutionalised, set up mostly as business vehicles by their leaders, with no clear policies. Many African and developing country oppositions parties do not have well-developed policy-making institutions so they do not constantly work on policy development.
The big challenge for many opposition parties in African and developing countries is that they often do not credibly present themselves as alternative governments and country presidents, and do not speak directly, and regularly, to solutions to the critical issues of their countries.
Many lack a Shadow Government structure, which allocate portfolios to their leaders in line with that of the governing party – and could help them better serve their role as government-in-waiting.
Many opposition parties in African and developing countries do not build lasting structures such as branches, organisational structures, and affiliates. When leaders leave, many such poorly institutionalised parties often also whither. Furthermore, for long stretches between elections, many opposition parties appear to be in hibernation, Rip van Winkel-like, only to appear during the election or by-election campaigns.
It is crucial that opposition parties in African and developing countries institutionalise themselves: establish branches, set up organisational structures and come up with credible policies. They have to recruit members, volunteers, and supporters. They will also have to nurture a cadre of leaders, rather than organising themselves around one supreme leader. Opposition parties must also become more ethnically, religiously, and nationally inclusive, to become fully representative of their diverse societies, rather than ethnic, religious, or regionally-focused.
Many African and developing countries solely oppose governing parties through rebutting government policies through the parliamentary, provincial legislature and municipal council debates. This partially fits into the Westminster Parliamentary style of opposition party scrutinising governing party policies and the administration through Question Time, Budget Votes, and No Confidence Motions. This not necessarily wrong.
However, to oppose liberation and independence movement parties, demands opposition movement style politics, which is different to that practice in Western democracies.
In movement style opposition, large parts of happens outside Parliament, provincial legislatures, and municipal councils. They happen directly in communities. Movement style politics are not like Westminster style politics, it is where political parties almost operate like civil society organisations, supporting their supporters and potential supporters at the coalface of service delivery failures, even if they are not the governing party there.
This means the opposition parties must be seen day and night in the communities responding to areas where there is no public service delivery failures, violence, and corruption – standing with the victims, articulating their policies plainly on the hustings, in real time, with the real people, not only through the mediation of Parliaments and municipal council debating chambers, as important these may be for democracy.
Effective opposition parties should operate in election mode 24/7, responding to government decisions, service delivery points and incidents of public corruption in real-time. If one put aside the repression by governing parties of oppositions parties, many of Africa’s opposition have in the main failed to establish identities as credible alternative governments – and their leaders, as alternative state presidents, in waiting.
Institutionalising Opposition Parties in African and Developing Countries
It is critical that African and developing countries institutionalise opposition parties. The first is for countries to legally guarantee the rights of opposition parties – to allow them the space to oppose, to participate freely in Parliamentary and Extra-Parliamentary politics and to be involved in co-governing. Giving opposition parties legal protection through regulation may be critical to entrench the normalising of opposition, induce a culture of tolerance and allowed unfettered participation by opposition parties in the political life of societies that come from autocratic traditions and are struggling to develop democratic cultures.
There has to be a high threshold for such regulations – not just a simple majority vote, but at least two-thirds majority vote, before any governing party can remove the legal protection for opposition parties (European Commission 2010).
In many African and developing country democracies country Constitutions are often not taken seriously by governing parties – or are contested either by traditional, religious, military and liberation movement cultures. So even if country Constitutions’ guarantee the democratic exercise of state power and the multiparty politics, the ruling parties and leaders can still flout it to repress the opposition.
African and developing countries should adopt rules that allows for proportional allocations of speaking time in Parliament, appointing to committees and allocation of budgets to opposition parties. There could be formal rules that critical committees, such as the Parliamentary Finance Committees or Public Accounts Committees should be chaired by opposition parties. This is the case in Norway, where Parliament’s standing Committee on Finance is by tradition chaired by an opposition party member (European Commission 2010). In SA, the Parliamentary Accounts Committee has in recent times been chaired by an opposition party member (Gumede 2005).
Developing democracies should also consider introducing Parliamentary rules that give opposition parties elevated powers to hold the majority governing party to account. For example, they could introduce rules that allow say a quarter or a third of MPs to be able to call for inquiries into misgovernance – and so allow opposition parties to be able to hold the Executive to account without governing party MPs using their sheer numbers to block oversight.
Developing democracies should consider introducing “qualified majority” voting in Parliaments when it comes to constitutional amendments, changes to fundamental rights and freedoms, to prevent majority parties from using their majorities to take rights away from citizens. Such “qualified majority” provisions could be two-thirds, or three-quarters of the fifth-sixth majority vote requirements.
Developing countries should also introduce legal protection for opposition parties: laws that protect opposition parties from prosecution, banning and dissolution by majority parties based on political motivations or from prosecuting individual public representations from oppositions for political reasons, whistleblowing and for criticisms of the governing party or country leader. Obviously, genuine criminal activities should be prosecuted – and there cannot be parliamentary immunity from criminal acts. Nevertheless, opposition parties must conduct their operations within the prescripts of the country’s Constitutions, laws, and parliamentary rules – and with integrity.
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