When the votes are counted and the winning party is declared, what becomes of the losers? In a healthy democracy, their work is just beginning.
The idea of a “loyal opposition” began in 18th-century England to let the out-of-power party express its views without fear of being charged with treason. The “loyal” part means that a party in opposition is loyal to the same fundamental interests and principles as the party in power. A loyal opposition is legitimate, constructive and responsible. Healthy democracies recognize how a nation benefits when government reflects a diversity of voices and makes space for dissent.
John Mbaku, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, observed that many African nations that secured independence in the early 1960s found a loyal opposition neither important nor desirable. “The idea was that nation-building could only be undertaken if everybody was on the same side.”
That changed with Nelson Mandela and South Africa, said Mbaku. Following the 1994 victory of his African National Congress (ANC) party, Mandela appointed to his Cabinet six members from former President F.W. de Klerk’s National Party and three from the Inkatha Freedom Party.
Mandela wanted an inclusive government that would represent all South Africans, said Mbaku. “Mandela was not going to replace one bad system with another. His orientation toward government was much different from what you see in most African countries today.”
Mandela understood that a loyal opposition holds the majority party accountable to the people. In Britain, the holding accountable occurs in public: During “question time,” members of Parliament grill the prime minister, sometimes sharply, as in the video below. The questions and answers are covered extensively on television and in the press.
In Ghana, where the presidential election takes place in November, opposition candidate Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings articulated the role of the loyal opposition in holding the ruling government to account: “It is our patriotic duty, as citizens of Ghana, not to make room for government complacency at all.”
In a developing democracy, the give-and-take of a democratically elected ruling party and its loyal opposition helps build and strengthen a working constitution, an independent judiciary and a strong legislative branch — institutions that belong to all the people.
“If you really want to leave a legacy as a good African leader,” said Mbaku, “construct institutions that will provide every group in your country with an opportunity to participate in governance.”