Why Opposition is vital to democracy

Sunday March 08 2020
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Norbert Mao

There has been a lot of talk about President Museveni wiping out the Opposition before the 2021 elections. Not only is the idea preposterous, but it is also dangerous to the body politic of a democracy. The Opposition is key to a functional democracy. The Opposition is expected to provide an alternative to government policies or actions. The Opposition scrutinises the government and holds it accountable for its decisions.

That is why there’s a Shadow Cabinet composed of spokespersons in the key portfolios. Shadow Cabinet members are known as Shadow Ministers because they “shadow” the work of the government ministers.
According to Stanley Knowles, a Canadian Parliamentarian, “the Opposition should so conduct itself in Parliament 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 system works best when there is a change of government at reasonable intervals.” According to Knowles the role of the Opposition is to “check and prod, but ultimately to replace the party in government.”

The Ugandan society appreciates the role of Opposition but to the NRM, the Opposition is at worst an inconvenience and at best a necessary evil. Our electoral system is the ‘first past the post’. This means that a numerically small Opposition usually represents a very large proportion of votes.
In Uganda, the role of MPs as initiators of legislation is clearly limited, but their role as representatives is unlimited. Furthermore, when it comes to oversight and scrutiny of the government, society looks more to Opposition members than government backbenchers.

The Opposition plays the role of government in waiting and that is why in developed democracies the leader of the largest Opposition party is usually briefed on sensitive matters so that he or she is ready to step into the role of governing the country at short notice.
The Opposition has to give visibility to its policies. But visibility without credibility is empty. Credibility comes from being seen as responsible, respected and united.
Has the government got any responsibility towards the Opposition? The answer is yes! First, sufficient resources should be provided for the work of the Opposition. Second, there must be an unfettered access to information, especially those available to ministers and civil servants. Third, there should be adequate advice from professional parliamentary staff such as researchers and draftsmen. Fourth, there should be resources allocated to fund publicity and for the use of the media. Fifth, there ought to be recognition of the special place of the Leader of Opposition and members of the Shadow Cabinet.

Opposition can play a more effective role in scrutinising the government and ensuring accountability. Scrutiny means overseeing the operations of the Executive in order to check how laws are being implemented.
Scrutiny means the Opposition should hold the government to high performance and accountability benchmarks. The Opposition must check to see that there is value for the money spent by the government. In this role the Opposition not only contributes to efficient running of the country but also stress their own points and show how their policies would have worked better.

There are many avenues available for effective scrutiny of government by the Opposition. First, is the avenue of the parliamentary question put to ministers to answer. Second, the Opposition can request for time to debate or raise a specific issue which request should normally be allowed under the rules of procedure or by practice and tradition of Parliament.
Third, parliamentary committees that provide oversight avail the most powerful avenue for the Opposition. These committees include the Public Accounts Committee, the Local Government Public Accounts Committee, the Committee on Government Assurances and the Committee on Parastatals and Public Enterprises.

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