Bernard Lewis: Disgruntled Iraqis Need to Remember the Prized Role of the Loyal OppositionRoundup: Historians' Take
Bernard Lewis, in the WSJ (5-24-05):
The Iraqis have made tremendous progress toward democracy, first by holding fair and contested elections, then by freely negotiating a series of compromise agreements, to form a coalition government comprising diverse and even previously conflicting elements. In a country where freedom and compromise were equally unfamiliar, these are giant steps forward.
But an important step still remains. The underlying assumption of the Iraqi parties -- and of some at least of their outside well-wishers and advisers -- seems to be that to be part of the political process one must somehow be part of the government. Failing that, one has no role in the political process, and one's only options are submission or resistance, the latter in the form of boycott, sabotage, terror or armed insurrection.
This is a dangerous fallacy. There is another essential component of any democratic system, and that is an opposition. The task of a democratic opposition is not to oppose the regime, though it may try, through democratic processes, to amend or modify its functioning. The task of a democratic opposition is to oppose the government, to strive to oust and replace it at the next election, and meanwhile to subject its actions, utterances and policies to rigorous but fair scrutiny. The role of a democratic opposition is recognized even in some of the world's pseudo-democracies, which adorn themselves with a tame, compliant pseudo-opposition. That is not enough. The opposition must be real and free, with a genuine, equal chance of winning. Otherwise the democratic process is about as meaningful as a football match with only one team.
In Britain, the traditional name for those who sit opposite the government benches in Parliament and thus on a daily basis confront and oppose them is "Her Majesty's loyal opposition." This term sometimes evokes derision or incomprehension in countries with different political traditions. But it expresses an important truth. In any functioning democracy a loyal opposition is an essential component, and both the loyalty and the opposition must be authentic.
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