06 May 2007

05 May 2007 - The need for strong opposition

This blog entry is dedicated to South Africa’s Leader of the Opposition, Tony Leon MP, who stepped down from his post and from the leadership of his party, the Democratic Alliance, after eight years and thirteen years, respectively. Leon stood for the principle and practice of opposition politics in post-apartheid South Africa. His contribution was great and will be missed. His farewell speech is here; the video coverage by SABC News is here.

The Israeli government is on the verge of collapse. The preliminary report of the Winograd Commission prompted 100,000 Israelis to rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to demand the prime minister’s resignation. Deputy PM Tzipi Livni’s has challenges for power, but has been stalled by loyalist members of the Kadima ruling party; now, the Labor party is considering walking out of the government.

Back in January 2003, with Israeli elections looming, the Labor Party announced that it would not serve in a government of national unity with Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party. (Two years later, the Labor Party did, in fact, join Sharon’s cabinet in order to save the government from collapse as a result of internal opposition to the Gaza disengagement, which saw thirteen Likud “rebels” vote against the Prime Minister.)

In a stirring op-ed article in Ha’aretz entitled “Tough opposition is vital to democracy,” Hillel Schocken supported Labor’s decision, and explained his reasons:

The Labor Party's decision to declare outright that it will not join a national unity government with the Likud is a correct one, despite being unfortunately late in coming. The Israeli political system has nurtured the notion of "national unity government" in such a way as to turn it into an original Israeli product, of a type not commonly found in Western democracies. Here the opinion has taken root that in times of crisis - political, military or economic - we must unite under such a government. The argument is that in times like these, there is no room for petty political differences and we must all make a common effort to overcome the causes of the crisis. There is an urgent need to state that a national unity government is undesirable, since it is in essence opposed to democracy. A true democracy draws its strength from the permanent existence of a government and an opposition. While the ruling coalition runs the affairs of state, the opposition criticizes its actions and proposes alternative ways of doing things. There is a good reason for the concept of "shadow government" in Britain - this is a parallel administration that at all times offers the public an alternative to the policies of the government in power. We must distinguish between the concept of "national unity" and a national unity government. A national unity government is no guarantee of national unity. It is difficult to imagine a time when we were further from national unity than during the term of the outgoing Sharon-led government. On the other hand, the permanent existence of a government and opposition does not eliminate the possibility of national unity in times of crisis. An opposition is not automatically obliged to oppose every action taken by the government. A responsible opposition is more likely to find itself supporting the government at a time when war or an economic crisis threaten the state. A credible government and opposition, based on clear ideological systems, present the public with different standpoints, and facilitates practical public discussion.

Tony Leon once referred to this article in a speech in Israel in 2003, adding a few additional reflections:

In South Africa, we have creeping one-partyism. The ruling party today, the African National Congress, is a dominant organisation that seeks to extend its reach to every institution and every sphere of society.

In Israel, by contrast, there seems to be a kind of “no-partyism”—a stalemate in which no political party can secure a majority by itself. Governments must be cobbled together in coalitions between parties that often have radical differences with one another on critical issues.

It might be said that while South Africa suffers from too little political opposition, Israel suffers from too much.

Both countries have informal ways of dealing with these political problems.

In South Africa, there is the notion of “opposition from within.” The [ruling] ANC [African National Congress], after all, has many different factions. The labour unions, for example, are part of the ruling party but disagree with the party leadership about the privatization of state assets, AIDS policy, and other issues. Some observers argue that these internal factions perform the same function that a larger political opposition normally performs in most other democratic systems.

A related notion is the idea of “constructive opposition.” This has been embraced by certain small parties, such as the New National Party, which has entered a coalition with the ANC. They argue that by cooperating with the ruling party on most issues, they can gain political leverage to oppose the government on others, presumably those issues that matter most to the smaller party’s constituents.

Yet both “opposition from within” and “constructive opposition” have proved to be failures. The ANC has clamped down on internal dissent through an effective political campaign against what is derisively called the “ultra-left” within the party. And those parties that have cooperated with the ANC have failed to win any real concessions. The NNP [New National Party], for example, utterly failed to prevent the destruction of the commando units, the community policing forces that up to now have helped to keep the peace in rural areas.

In Israel, the problem of “no-partyism” has often been dealt with through the formation of a “national unity government.” The idea here is that in times of crisis, it is far better to bring all the major parties together than to have them on opposite sides of the political floor. In South Africa, this idea also still has a certain currency.

However, as Hillel Schocken of Ha’aretz observed in January of this year, “[a] national unity government is no guarantee of national unity.” He also warns that we must distinguish between the concept of national unity on the one hand, and the institution of a national unity government on the other.

It is difficult for new ideas and alternative approaches to emerge when the opposition is smothered in the close embrace of the ruling party. There can be national unity, Schocken argues, without a national unity government. When the nation is threatened, a party of “responsible opposition” can support the government in good faith without having to abandon its political autonomy.

“A true democracy,” Schocken declares, “draws its strength from the permanent existence of a government and an opposition. While the ruling coalition runs the affairs of state, the opposition criticizes its actions and proposes alternative ways of doing things.”

To Schocken’s conclusion, I would add only one thing: that the permanent existence of a government and an opposition should not mean that the relative positions of the parties are also permanent. A healthy democracy is one in which the opposition has a reasonable hope of changing places with the government. . . .

A stronger opposition is not just good for us as a party, but good for South Africa as a whole. A strong opposition can hold the government to account and—critically—serve as the vehicle for new ideas and creative approaches to pressing social problems.


Leon and Schocken’s support for strong opposition is relevant today as Israel struggles to deal with the implications and consequences of the Winograd report. It may be time once again for Labor to withdraw from the government and join the opposition—even if that might bring Bibi Netanyahu and Likud back to power—because the country needs clear ideas and alternatives for the way forward.

Instead, on all sides, Israel seems a country plagued by political opportunism and its close relative, cowardice. Olmert won’t take responsibility for the failure in Lebanon. Livni chose not to resign before challenging the prime minister. And Netanyahu waited until the last moment to quit Sharon’s government—unlike Sharansky, who left months earlier. Peres, too, is waiting.

Tony Leon has left his post in South Africa, even after more than a decade of success, in order to make way for new leaders who might be able to take his party even further in its mission. When was the last time an Israeli politician stepped down for the sake of his party, or for the sake of his ideals? Israel desperately needs new leaders, as well as a new understanding of what leadership is all about.

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