A key tenet of any democracy is that there are multiple political parties that contest a free and fair election that results in one or more of those parties forming a government that will manage the affairs of the state on a day-to-day basis until the next election. Of course, key to this definition is that there are also political parties that do not win the election but still have seats in parliament. These parties form the opposition to the government.
Opposition parliamentary groups have an important role in a democracy and, in turn, within parliament. The authority they have will depend on a number of factors, including:
o Government system – is the executive branch based in parliament or is the parliament separate from the executive?
o Electoral system – Does the system elect a limited number of parties with one party normally having a majority of the seats? Or does the system allow for the election of numerous parties with the formation of coalitions or minority parliaments.
o Culture – Is there a tradition of strong executive government or one in which parties are expected to reach a consensus?
Depending on the systems under which a parliament operates, opposition groups have more or less authority and tools to promote their agenda and policy options. In some parliaments, opposition groups may have the authority to appoint chairs of committees, request an interpellation and ask questions on a daily basis. In others, they may not be able to introduce legislation or are limited in the time they have to speak on a draft law.
No matter the rules, a standard for a democratic parliament is that opposition MPs have the right to be heard. This means that even though the government may have the votes to pass a draft law or to prevent a committee from monitoring closely the work of a government department, opposition MPs will still have the right to debate, ask questions and present alternative policies to those of the government. In the end, the vast majority of these words and proposals will be ignored, but by using parliament as a podium from which to promote its ideas, opposition groups can lay before the voters their vision of the country when next there is an election.
Opposition groups can have an impact even where their tools are limited. By working with CSOs and maintaining a dialogue with citizens, such groups can ensure that what they are raising in the parliament reflects the concerns of citizens. In many cases, opposition MPs are better connected to the opinion on the proverbial “street” than government MPs and this should be used in parliament to amplify those voices. When there is a sufficiently loud voice created outside of and within parliament, the government will feel the pressure to react.