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Building a healthy political opposition

By Emmanuel Ojeifo
27 April 2015   |   4:54 am
IN his seminal work, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (1971), Robert Dahl proposed a new understanding of democracy typically encapsulating the maxim that democracy requires not only popular participation, but also popular competition (or, contestation as he would have it)


“An election cannot give a country a firm sense of direction if it had two or more national parties which merely have different names but are as alike in their principles and aims as peas in the same pod.” – Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1938).

IN his seminal work, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (1971), Robert Dahl proposed a new understanding of democracy typically encapsulating the maxim that democracy requires not only popular participation, but also popular competition (or, contestation as he would have it).

Democracy is not only a regime in which those who govern are selected through contested elections, but more fundamentally a system of government in which parties lose elections.

Multi-party elections grant citizens a powerful weapon to use against unresponsive elected officials: The ability to “throw the rascals out” and turnovers have been shown to reinforce the legitimacy of political institutions and deepen democratic consolidation.

Yet, the mechanism of vertical accountability whereby the people can hold elected politicians responsible, depends on political opposition providing voters a choice. In other words, elections must include credible opposition parties in order to serve as instruments of democracy.

The role of an opposition party is to check and prod, but ultimately to replace the governing party. In order to do this, it must so conduct itself as to persuade the people of the country that it could be an improvement on the government of the day. No one will deny that our democratic system works best when there is a change of government at reasonable intervals.

That is why Benjamin Disraeli’s dictum that ‘no government can long be secure without a formidable opposition’ has been proved true and fully valid for the health and efficiency of a democracy. Wherever the system of representative democracy has been established, the importance of a healthy, effective, vigilant and principled opposition has been fully realized as something indispensable.

With the reversal of fortune in last month’s presidential election, the 16-year-old hegemony of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has been broken. On May 29, PDP will trade its place with the All Progressives Congress (APC), henceforth assuming the role of the nation’s strongest voice of opposition in the configuration of Nigeria’s democratic politics.

For a party that has been steering the ship of statecraft since the beginning of the Fourth Republic, being in the opposition will not be an easy task. But I believe that this is a crucial opportunity for PDP to put its house in order.

However, in order to build a healthy opposition party, there are four important areas that I suggest PDP should focus upon. First, it is an unfortunate staple in our political clime that politicians massively defect to the winning party when their parties lose at elections.

What is largely responsible for this climate of political infidelity is that Nigeria’s political parties are built not on sound ideological underpinnings, but on selfish personal agenda. By elite consensus, political power in Nigeria is seen as an avenue to access state resources and no one wants to lose out in the power struggle. The result is that politicians often align themselves with whichever party is in power.

This is what the great Mahatma Gandhi calls ‘politics without principles’. No nation can build a credible opposition under this kind of atmosphere. Opposition should be a chance to bring in fresh ideas, hear critical voices and build up relationships. It is an important part of building a new consensus. For this reason, the house of PDP must not fall; it must stay and work together.

Second, staying together as one strong opposition party will make no sense if it does not help PDP to undertake a major self-examination.

This means that the party must go back to the drawing board, honestly assess its performance for the past 16 years and identify its areas of comparative strength and weakness. This should succeed in helping the party unravel the factors responsible for its poor outing in the last presidential election.

Third, opposition politics is about ideas, policies and strategies for changing the party in power. Opposition is about getting elected; plans for office mean nothing without getting into government.

In this light, PDP will have to assemble a team of experts in different aspects of governance: Politics, economy, science, education, health, transport and business that will drive its campaign of ideas. Interest groups, think-tanks and consultancies can provide a very valuable resource.

The work of these experts will be to identify the failures and loopholes in the policy framework of the ruling party and to propose new ideas for political change. While in opposition, parties should be thinking about what they actually want to achieve in office. Work done in opposition can have a big effect on the future cost and outcomes of policies, how the government is perceived and the likelihood of getting re-elected.

Fourth, resources in opposition often seem scarce because the opposition party does not control the instruments of coercion and the resources of the state.

However, the resources available to the opposition can be used wisely to look strategically or politically at issues, react rapidly and marshal thoughts coherently.

It also has a lot to do with dealing with the media and managing limited amount of money and relationships with the wider party and external groups. I should like to stress here that media management is very crucial to the success of opposition politics.

History provides many examples of politicians who have caused irredeemable havoc to their party because of utterances that they later come to regret. In opposition politics, everyone cannot and should not be allowed to speak on behalf of the party.

I believe that the race for 2019 has already begun, and the determining factor in what direction the political wind sways will be the quality of opposition politics that PDP is going to bring to the table of political participation.

Under democracy, one party must always devote its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule, and this is healthy for the system because it enlarges the frontiers of democratic consolidation and human progress.

•Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja.