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Why we need a credible opposition

by Admin - Lanka Forum

In a democracy, elections are the primary means by which citizens hold their political leaders accountable. If political leaders fail to deliver, the citizens simply vote the 'rascals' out at the next election. However elections are few and far between, whereas policies are made on a daily-basis. As such, how can citizens hold their leaders accountable—on a daily-basis—without having to wait for the election-cycle? In a democracy, while the media and civil society organizations play an important complementary role, the primary responsibility in this regard lies with the political opposition.

Besides waiting on the wings hoping to win power someday, the opposition also has a huge role to play while out of power. And this is to act as the primary watchdog of the rulers, shadowing their every step, dissecting policies line-by-line, and calling out if they fall short. This helps the citizens—who are typically busy with their lives—to monitor activities of their rulers continuously even between elections.

For corrupt rulers, this watchdog role of the opposition can become quite a nuisance. With the opposition breathing down their neck and second-guessing their every move, they would have very little space to maintain their patron-client networks. Therefore, it is common practice for such rulers to try to undermine this role of the opposition. Typically, the effectiveness of the opposition in being a watchdog is linked to the degree of credibility it enjoys. If the power imbalance between the regime and the opposition is too great, or if the opposition has built a reputation of criticizing everything without any merit, the chances of it meaningfully challenging the regime will be slim. This would directly undermine its watchdog role. Corrupt rulers, therefore, often attack the opposition’s credibility in trying to minimize their oversight role.

We saw this happening with the previous regime when it exploited the post-war spike in popularity to dismantle all democratic checks-and-balances. By doing that, the regime created such a power imbalance between it and the opposition that the latter's chances of challenging the regime were never 'credible'. Unfortunately, the fallout from these weakened democratic institutions did not end with the fall of the old regime. The unique and unprecedented effort that was eventually required to get rid of that regime—almost amounting to a subversive conspiracy—has now created a bizarre situation where the line between the ruling party and the opposition has become extremely blurred. This has effectively denied us a watchdog in terms of a credible opposition again.

The current situation is similar to two cricket teams suddenly realizing halfway through the game that the match is fixed and deciding to abandon the game but—to keep the spectators entertained—still deciding to continue with the action. So now we have bowlers bowling and batters batting indiscriminately sometimes between members of the same team. You also have fielders taking catches and making random stops for no apparent reason. Previously, the spectators felt cheated because the game was lopsided with one team rigging the rules in their favor. But now the spectators have no idea who is winning or losing because they have no clue who the teams are. As a spectator, it is difficult to decide which makes you feel cheated the most.

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