The Role of Opposition in a Democracy – Essay

Role of Opposition in a Democracy


  1. Place of  ‘opposition in various forms of government and origin of the concept.
  2. Opposition and the party system.
  3. Functions of opposition in a democracy form alternative government; check government arbitrariness; build up public opinion and get it incorporated in policies; bring up priority issues for attention of the policy-makers; ensure the upholding of the Constitution.
  4. In times of national crises, a democracy gains strength as government and opposition act in concert.
  5. Responsible behaviour required if opposition is to work for the nation’s good.
  6. Summing up.

SOME forms of rule cannot tolerate opposition, and root it out wherever it arises. Other forms not only tolerate it, but make room for it within the institutions of government. This feature of internalized opposition’ has sometimes been taken as a mark of limited, as opposed to absolute, government, and also as the mark of politics, as opposed to coercion. It is hard to imagine the feature without extremely complex institutions and constitutional devices: it is one of the principal problems of political thought to discover what makes such opposition possible. he use of the term opposition’, to denote forces within Political institutions that resist the ruling officers or party, is comparatively recent. J. Carn Hobhouse, speaking in the House of Commons in 1826, remarked that it was said to very hard on His Majesty’s ministers to raise objections to some proposition. For his own part, he taught it was take the course. Hansard records laughter at the phrase “His Majesty’s opposition”.

Although the term ‘opposition’ was used as far back as the eighteenth century to refer to a party or a caucus within an assembly, the suggestion of an established opposition is relatively new.It is now, however, quite normal to refer to a loyal opposition’, and to imply that the interests of the State are as well served by the opposition as by the government itself.

The ‘opposition’ in the modern UK Parliament consists not merely of opposition parties or factions, but principally of a ‘shadow formation’. The offices of government are imitated within the opposition, which thereby forms itself into a body prepared to substitute for all the occupants of those offices at any time. The opposition has its leader, its base organisation and committees, and usually responds to every move of the government with counter-proposals, representing, in theory, what it would do if it were in office.

Even in states with high levels of repression it is rare to find no trace of opposition. In single-party systems, the opposition may exist as an underground movement as in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics where no formal opposition to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was permitted but dissidents like Boris Yeltsin continued to exist. Or an opposition may engage in armed struggle as in El Salvador. Undue repression of the apposition often results in bloodshed and even change of government through violent means.

In democratic systems, the opposition is officially permitted and recognised. Even the leader of opposition is given an honourable place in the system. In Britain, the position of the leader of Her Majesty’s opposition is formalised in statute and he or she has certain rights, such as the right of reply to prime ministerial broadcasts. In India, to the opposition leader has been given certain rights and privileges on par with a cabinet minister if he commands the support of the required number of Parliament members.

The concept of opposition in the modern democratic state is closely connected with the idea of the political party. A political party is a more or less organised group of citizens who act together as a political unit, have distinctive aims and opinions on the leading political issues and problems in the state, and who, by acting together as a political unit, seek to obtain control of the government.

The party that is out of the government at a given point of time is called the opposition party. The number of the opposition party/parties may be one or more depending on whether there is a dual-party or multiparty system.

The most prominent question that may strike one’s mind is: Why does democracy demand the existence of opposition? An opposition party always looks for an opportunity to replace the party-in-government, and implement its own policies and programmes. As a result, it serves two purposes. One, the government of the day eschews being arbitrary in its actions and negligent of the interests of the people in general; on the other, the people of a democratic country are offered an alternative in governance of the country in their interests.

The opposition parties also enable men and women who think alike on public questions to unite in support of a common body of principles and policies and to work together to see that those principles and policies are adopted and implemented by the government. Without organisation, the people can neither formulate principles easily nor agree on policy. The opposition makes articulate the inarticulate desires of sections of the masses and gives expression to their pent-up feelings. This goes a long way in checking violence and political crimes which are, in reality, fatal for the healthy survival of democracy.

Out of the innumerable problems which call for solution in a state, the opposition is expected to select those which are comparatively urgent, study them, think out solutions and present them to the people and to the government. And, thus, it acts as a “broker of ideas” as Lowell says. It preserves a sense of continuity in public policy, organises and educates the electorate, and helps to carry on and necessitate regular elections. It also dramatises politics and keeps the nation politically alive. It keeps the government on its toes.

The opposition, like the judiciary, is an agent for safeguarding the Constitution in case the government wittingly or unwittingly does something to violate it. The opposition also necessitates periodic interpretation, re-interpretation and amendment of the Constitution to suit changes in times, circumstances and priorities. In most democracies, the opposition’s views have to be taken into consideration in legislating on socially-sensitive matters.

The opposition has the capacity to initial in the government the confidence and ability to deal with national crises. Here, the opposition’s support means that the entire country is behind the government in the hour of crisis. Not many would have forgotten the thundering speech and support given by Atal Behari Vajpayee in the Parliament (1971) when the Government of India led by Indira Gandhi had to withstand the Pakistani aggression. In the absence of the opposition, the government cannot be sure of the entire population’s support. Moreover, the opposition also gives credence and authenticity to any measures of the government taken in the interests of the people and the state. The parties outside power extend support to certain measures as they cannot afford to be regarded as anti-people or anti-nation as they, too, have ultimately to face the praise or wrath of the public. Thus, the opposition does not always have to oppose the government.

Sometimes the parties in opposition oppose the government measures merely for the sake of opposition. This delays even the progressive steps of the government and results in waste of time, money and material. It also misleads the masses. Not infrequently, the leaders in opposition resort to demagogy which is harmful for the nation’s health. Howsoever apologetically ignorant the people may be, they cannot forgive such irresponsible and delinquent behaviour on the part of an opposition party.

In a democracy, the modes operand of the opposition involves going to the people and criticising the government, s-statements, debating and discussing issues in Parliament, arousing public opinion, both national and international, and placing no-confidence motions against the government. In India, submitting a memorandum to the President is also a common practice. All these are commensurate with the democratic norms and contribute to the consolidation and stabilisation of democracy in the social and political system.

To sum up, the opposition fulfills certain necessary functions-so necessary, indeed, that many competent thinkers consider it essential to the working of representative government. Of course, the opposition sometimes delays the proceedings and the implementation of vital legislation. But the balance tilts towards its beneficial impact rather than the baneful. If democracy has come to stay, it is not becaıse it is the perfect form of self-government. Unlike dictatorship or totalitarian systems, it does not believe in self-evident principles. No plan or policy can benefit the people if we look only at its ‘pros’ and deny the ‘cons’. Only the opposition can provide those Cons.

Above all, it is the opposition that puts a rein on the power of the government and checks it from becoming absolute.

Role of Opposition in a Democracy

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