Role of opposition parties in democracy (Daily Times)

In defence of opposition’s role in democratic Pakistan

By Babar Ayaz

In the run-up to the 2013 elections two cynical terms are oft repeated by some politicians and unfortunately by a large section of media. These terms are ‘Muk Muka’ (meaning a deal between the two parties, with the connotation of an under-hand deal between the two parties) and a similar term ‘Noora Kushti’ (meaning a fixed fight). These terms are used frivolously to describe any understanding reached between the recently dissolved government coalition and the opposition.  The third oft repeated positive term—Change or ‘Tabdeeli’ has been added by the perseverant Imran Khan who also uses the cynical terms freely to denigrate PML (N)’s role as opposition.

To be fair, with Mian Nawaz Sharif’s led opposition in the central government has been unjustly accused of ‘Muk Muka’, Noora Kushti, friendly opposition etc. When people like Imran Khan who want to carve out a place for PTI criticise PML (N) it is understandable because he is working hard to present his party as the third alternative. In developing democracies like Pakistan use of simple and street language is used to get across an otherwise complex message as to why an alternate party is needed and what ‘change’ it is offering.

But when the media pundits use these terms trying to impress upon the people that something sinister is being done by the opposition, they are being reckless and failing in their duty to educate the people about the democratic process. Either the friends in media fall prey to such terms to gain popularity through cheap stunts or they are not aware of the historical evolution of a democratic process. My solidarity streak with media tends to convince me that it is the former.

There is some confusion also to which media adds a bit on its own. For instance when the parliamentarians’ committee failed to decide who should be caretaker prime minister, many in the media rightly criticised that politicians have failed to show maturity. But when they agreed in a last minute development on nomination of the caretaker chief minister of Punjab, there were cries that it is Muk Muka.

Instead of giving Nawaz Sharif full credit for playing the role of a responsible opposition, his party was mocked as ‘loyal opposition’ and ‘friendly opposition’.

Then there are many businessmen and senior professionals who condemn all politicians and blame the military for not stepping in “to save the people from the corrupt politicians.” Support of an autocratic military rule as against democratic system defies the classical political theory that the bourgeoisie promoted democracy in many countries which have developed democratic systems in place. Interestingly in Pakistan both the quasi-feudal agriculturists and the common people support democracy. While the former’s interest is seeking power, the latter’s is seeking their rights and say when the elections are held. This subject needs to be dealt with separately in another article.

Coming back to the role of opposition in the democratic process it should be kept in mind that its primary function in dispensing its duty is to be the watch-dog of the people. They are supposed to raise a voice in the parliament against the policies of the government which they believe are against the people’s interest. PML (N) and other opposition policies precisely did the same.

Its role is to sit on the various ministries parliamentary committees and criticise the actions which they think are wrong. Their role is to sit on the legislative committees so that the proposed laws are drafted with their input. This helps in the smooth approval of these laws in the parliament. Remarkable work was done by the recently dissolved parliament in this regard, which not only passed the jumbo 18th amendment but 134 legislations in five years. The role of the opposition is to guard the judicial independence. The role of the opposition is to expose corruption by the ruling parties’ leaders in the parliament and at different public forums. The role of the opposition is to oppose any laws and attacks by the ruling parties on the freedom of expression, civil liberties and economic policies which they think are harmful for the country. The role of opposition is to present alternate policies—economic, social sector, foreign policy and national security policy.

Dr. Julius Kiiza of Mekerere University has aptly explained in a paper presented at an international conference that “[i]n competitive multi-party politics, the party that is elected to form government seeks to enact into law a number of policies and programs (often times consistent with their election manifesto). Opposition parties are free to criticize the ruling party’s policies, ideas and programs and offer alternatives. Democratic parties recognize and respect the authority of the elected government even when their party leaders are not in power. This is possible because democratic societies are committed to the values of tolerance, cooperation and compromise. Democracies recognize that consensus building requires compromise and tolerance…The notion of a loyal opposition is central to any democracy. It means that all sides in the political debate – however deep their differences – share the fundamental democratic values of freedom of speech, the rule of law and equal protection under the law. Parties that lose elections become the opposition. The opposition, then, is essentially a “government-in-the-waiting. For a culture of democracy to take hold, opposition parties need to have the confidence that the political system will guarantee their right to organize, speak, dissent and/or criticize the party in power. Opposition parties also need to be assured that in due course, they will have a chance to campaign and re-seek the peoples mandate in and through regular, free and fair elections.”

It is this culture of democracy that is in-the-making in Pakistan. The impatient cynics have to bear with the process that requires peaceful transfer of power through elections. Opposition in Pakistan has performed the role prescribed to them by the people’s mandate—as stated above—and that is required in a democratic dispensation. Impatient critics of the system and supporters of military rule have always wanted to kill democracy in its infancy because it wets and gives sleepless nights; the child has to be nurtured patiently if we want a healthy democratic society. (


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