Paul Pillar

Hard Times for Loyal Opposition

Notwithstanding the attention we understandably give to whoever is in power or on the way to attaining it, the health of a democracy depends just as much on a strong and credible loyal opposition. A loyal opposition should demonstrate in the fullest sense the meaning of both the words in that term. It is an opposition in that it feels entirely free to speak, vigorously and openly, against the policy of the day. It is loyal not just in the sense that members of the opposition are patriots but also in the sense that they recognize members of the government are as well. It is an arrangement in which everyone understands that sharp and even intensely expressed differences can exist within a political framework to which everyone is loyal.

The advantages of such a political structure parallel the economic advantages of a free market. Spirited competition in which competitors accept each other as legitimate assures that consumers (i.e., voters) will have a credible choice. That in turn strengthens the incentive of rulers to govern in the interest of the ruled. Even without an actual change in power, the possibility of one keeps those in power on their toes.

From this perspective, some of the most conspicuous political events since the beginning of this week are not good news.

There are the elections in France and Greece, which, even if they help to push European economic policy in a direction in which it most needs to go at the moment, have certainly not helped the clarity and strength of political competition in those countries. After Nicolas Sarkozy's loss the French Center-Right will struggle to muster the electoral strength to challenge the socialists without buying into positions of Marine Le Pen's Far-Right National Front. In Greece, the political map is a mess after fringe parties on both the Right and the Left inflicted severe losses on the two mainstream parties that for years had alternated between government and opposition.

Then in Israel is the surprising move by Shaul Mofaz to bring his centrist Kadima Party into Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling coalition. There are many possible implications one could draw from this; David Makovsky's take is as well-informed as anyone's. A possible positive implication is that Mofaz may have some moderating influence on the government and lessen Netanyahu's reliance on the most hard-line members of his current coalition. But the dominant effect will likely be to strengthen Netanyahu's political position and leave him freer to do what he wants to do without worrying much about challenges from the opposition. Government parties now control 94 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. The official leader of the opposition is no longer Mofaz but instead the leader of the Labor Party, which has been in steady decline over the past few decades. More than ever, Netanyahu is now seen by many Israelis as the only plausible national leader. Kadima was facing its own loss of seats if an election were held this year, but Mofaz probably had been the most credible alternative to the incumbent prime minister.

Back home in Indiana, Richard Lugar's long and distinguished career in the U.S. Senate is being brought to an end by a primary-election defeat at the hands of a Tea Party-backed candidate. This result means the loss of a senator who, when not in the majority, embodied the characteristics described above of a loyal opposition. His departure is another step toward dominance in the Republican Party of views that do not display those characteristics—i.e., views that question whether Barack Obama and the “Democrat Party” are even legitimate competitors. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee has been slow to distance himself from those views, such as on Monday when he failed to challenge a woman speaking at one of his campaign rallies in Ohio who said President Obama “should be tried for treason.”

If there has been even a slightly bright spot on this subject this week, it was in Russia, where Dmitri Medvedev received the necessary parliamentary vote to become prime minister and complete his job switch with Vladimir Putin. Some minority members whose parties had done well in an election in December decided to act more like a loyal opposition by respectfully voting against Medvedev. “We want to consolidate Russian society, but only on the basis of our own social democratic platform,” said a member of the Just Russia party. “That is why our faction today has decided in the selection of the prime minister to vote against the leader of the party that we consider our political and ideological opponent.”

You know you are stretching when you have to look to the Duma for optimistic signs of vibrant democracy. It remains to be seen just how vibrant democracy there will be. A scowling Putin, not hiding his displeasure over how many votes were cast against his protégé and no doubt having different ideas about what loyal opposition means, said ominously, “I am sure that the work of the government and the parliament will be constructive despite the well-known opposition of some deputies in this hall.”

Image: premier.gov.ru