Opposition Parties: Benefits and Challenges in Building Sustainable Democracy

By Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
October 20, 2006


“Before you make war, make sure that your enemy is weak, and before you make peace, make sure that your adversary is strong.” (Unknown Author)

How do opposition political parties benefit transitional societies such as Liberia in achieving democracy? There are many answers to this question, each with its own implications for how governance takes shape in specific social, political, and economic contexts. The nation building debate in post-conflict Liberia has tended to focus on the conduct of the ruling government and the non-governmental sector. Limited attention has been paid to the conduct of the opposition political parties, particularly their role in forging “participatory governance.” The purpose of this paper is fourfold: to bring this issue to the forefront of our national debate, spur dialogue, transform the interface between the ruling and opposition parties, and help consolidate multiparty democracy.

Essentially, I argue that to make considerable progress toward an inclusive democracy in Liberia, we must surmount economic, political and social cleavages that have entrenched a dominant-party system and subjected opposition parties to subservient roles. It is well-established that the “dominant-party” paradigm have held electoral competition hostage, jeopardized the protection of civil liberties, and undermined efficient governance. More so, it has even been difficult to distinguish between the state and the ruling party, since both have always engaged in a sacrosanct marriage, a thoroughfare used by predators to ingrain ethnic and related social divisions.

Definition and Disclaimer
Opposition political party is defined as partisan political institutions that are intentionally designed to temper the ruling party’s excesses while still pursuing both legislative and presidential offices. Partisan political institutions are not the only means to consolidate democracy. Non-partisan civil society organizations also play critical roles in this effort. For example, we are currently witnessing an unprecedented assimilation of civil society organizations into the Liberian political economy, hence, embodiments of a vibrant democracy. This has contributed to a burgeoning political class comprised of young to middle age rights advocates. Whether or not they are wedded to democratic values remains to be seen. But there are also veteran rights advocates dispersed across this spectrum that have maintained character and vigilance. Missing though, are think tanks that can examine issues dispassionately and offer recommendations or develop interventions that can address pressing societal problems. I should add that a false dichotomy has often been drawn between non-governmental organizations and partisan opposition parties given that functionally each engages their constituents with different purposes in mind. However, there are significant ways in which the spaces that the two entities occupy intersect and mutually reinforce the other that is often neglected in the debate about nation building in transitional societies. Both NGOs and opposition parties engage a populace that has often been excluded from the social and political mainstream seeking to assert their interests or even provide services to them that the government is either incapable of and/or unwilling to provide. Their mutual emphases on erecting structures that foster “public deliberation, problem solving, and participatory governance” make these social and political actors allies in the prosecution of democracy. Essentially, NGOs and opposition political parties “create alternative political cultures” that naturally do not flow from the government, necessitated by the organic needs of the citizenry.

The Shadows of the Previous Opposition Politics
The current rights advocates function in the shadows of their predecessors, but also in climates that are starkly different. Pre-war Liberia offered a harsh and desolate environment for opposition politics. The civil society landscape was nearly barren with rights activists, religious organizations, media outlets, and international relief organizations agitating for political liberalization. Hardly were they organized into a strong network to leverage their capacity in order to make a robust impact. Citizens demonstrated a sense of apathy and a consistent inability to advocate for change in their conditions. Many ordinary Liberians were so overwhelmed by their conditions that they expressed feelings of powerlessness on many fronts. The harassment, imprisonment, press censorship, and even the murder of opposition politicians, all combined to make opposition politics a dangerous pursuit.

Nonetheless, one has to distinguish those who participated in opposition politics in at least five categories for purposes of shedding ample light on some of the prevailing conditions of the times. The first category comprised of academics, many of whom espoused commitments to democratic values. Unfortunately, a large segment was emasculated by dictators and then discarded. Some were even used successfully by dictators to serve undemocratic ends. This prompted many to align themselves with non-democratic practices, including affiliation with insurgent groups that destabilized the country. Within the second group, resided some of the people who had worked in the Tubman and Tolbert governments, but did not enjoy the favor of the ruling government. As a result, they used opposition politics to navigate their way back into government. Third, there were others whose personal or business interests were threatened by the military elites or insurgent groups and felt it necessary to restore such interests through ties with opposition politics. Many from the Tolbert administration were searching for a place in a society that had changed dramatically. One of the most disenfranchised groups in Liberian society, enlisted military personnel gained access to unprecedented power and all of its social and political trappings. The longstanding settler hegemony was overturned.

The fourth group comprised of students and peasants who viewed opposition politics as a true vehicle for bringing about social change. Indeed, some became so idealistic in their views of some of the opposition leaders that when their undemocratic tendencies disappointed them, they joined a fifth group. The fifth group included predators that were so absorbed in spewing ethnic diatribe and hatred and used this motivation to form insurgent groups as their way to amass ill-gotten wealth and exact revenge. Opposition politics in Liberia has certainly been a venue for divergent interests. It has even been a powerful springboard to the Interim Presidency (Amos Sawyer) and the Presidency Proper (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf). Perhaps, this is the explanation for why some Liberians remain suspicious of the motives of opposition politicians. For many who participated in the opposition parties and/or movements, their attachment to these institutions, organizations, groups, and/or formations seemed like a practical way for them to convert the stigma of failure from liability into an asset.

Considering some of the interests that opposition politics have served, which are counter to democracy, why should one be surprise to see that one-party rule has been the norm in Liberia? Track the standard treatment that opposition politicians have offered the Liberian citizenry with me for a moment. They are here right before elections, and then gone immediately after the elections, with minimum exceptions. Furthermore, each opposition party or group acts as if it would rescue the country from the scourge of ineptitude and tyranny. More importantly, each acts as if it has created immunity against being rendered impotent by the ruling party. But in the end, like all others, it gets emasculated, weakened, swallowed up, and then regurgitated by the ruling party. The result of the gap between expectations and delivery has often been an ineffective entity that has no capacity to fulfill its promises. This long standing practice has granted substantial power to the ruling party (i.e., the True Whig Party, the National Democratic Party, and then, the National Patriotic Party), which has caused the country to reel back and forth between dictatorial rule and intervals characterized by quasi civilian rule.

Revisiting the 2005 Elections
Twenty-two candidates participated in the presidential elections in Liberia, representing nearly 30 political parties. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Unity Party (UP) did not emerge victorious until run-off elections were held between Sirleaf and George Weah of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC). Three other political parties, Liberty Party (LP) – Charles Brumskine, National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL) – Winston Tubman and the Coalition for the Transformation of Liberia (COTOL) – Varney Sherman, representing Liberian Action Party (LAP), Liberian Unification Party (LUP), People’s Democratic Party of Liberia (PDPL) and the True Whig Party of Liberia (TWP) emerged as third, fourth, and fifth runner-ups. But since the elections were held, the parties or political groups that competed in these elections have played a decreasing role in building viable democratic institutions that can foster the participation of their constituencies in the democratic life of the country. I am left to wonder if they are waiting to surface immediately preceding another presidential elections - disorganized, lack of capacity, and unready to engage in healthy political competition. In a small country such as Liberia, was it necessary to have these many political parties and presidential candidates? We just did not need such a large number of opposition political parties and presidential candidates especially since at one point or another some of the parties competing in the elections could not even attract supporters large enough to completely fill a family-size car parking garage.

What has happened to the twenty one or more other political organizations or formations that contested the legislative and presidential elections? What is the capacity of those organizations to administer a functioning political party in terms of money, workforce, structure and infrastructure that can garner meaningful citizen participation in the political life of the nation, especially those citizens that do not support the ruling political party? Are these organizations enduring or fleeting? What potential do these organizations have for the development of a multiparty state in Liberia? Do they have coherent set of policies and preferences that distinguish them from the others? Are the labels that distinguish them mere symbols of convenience that each has adopted solely as a garment that can be changed opportunistically? Is it possible to say that a person of conviction and principle resides within the opposition that cannot be swayed by opportunism? Did many of these people enter the political fray knowing that they had little or no chance of winning, but to use the resulting name recognition to obtain a space at the political table, thus assuring them at least a government position? Have these opposition parties left their constituency vulnerable to being lured by the ruling party? Would they then be starting all over in wooing people who voted for them previously because they failed to maintain ties with them following the elections? These questions haunt opposition political parties in Liberia today. Simply, a golden opportunity exists for evolving a vibrant democracy in Liberia or opportunities exist for the opposition parties to deepen their marginalization, if they fail to tend the fertile fields of electorate that exist in the country.

With the fading of the opposition parties from the political scene following the elections, it has become apparent that many of these parties evolved around the personalities of the individuals that were their presidential candidates, and limited or no efforts are being made to enact internal democracy. By internal democracy, I am referring to mechanisms for free examination of the political ideas that govern the political party. I am also referring to democratic processes through which popular will is strengthened and asserted: electing representatives, resolving disputes, and decision making in general.

Many of these political parties exist in name only. Consequently, could it be true that many of these opposition parties have failed to submit their members or leaders to competitive democratic processes? I should note though that the United People’s Party (UPP) is perhaps the lone political party which went through a process that involved its constituents in internal elections involving Milton Teahjay and Marcus Dahn to select their presidential candidate. The New Deal Movement is said to have also initiated such a process, but did not have others to compete with their Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates. I am convinced therefore that many of the opposition parties face significant lack of the structures around which their constituents can evolve institutions. As such, this lack of institutional structure is responsible for their inability to attract and develop competent talents (volunteers and employed workforce) to undertake institution building.

Reactive Politics
Let’s begin with CDC. Since the last elections, its presidential candidate has literally faded from the national political scene and his populist appeal has waned tremendously. This has left some wondering if he has a future in politics. During his brief reappearance, he criticized the Liberian government for lack of a crime policy and offered no prudent alternatives. As crimes littered the country, Youth for the Promotion of Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (YOPMEJOSA) blamed the opposition parties for inciting the upsurge. The group alleged that these were acts of sabotage carried out by individuals loyal to opposition groups to dampen the government’s success. Eugene Nagbe, CDC’s National Secretary General criticized the Sirleaf government as did Israel Akinsanya, the Chairman of Liberty Party, who charged the ruling party with practicing tyrannical tactics. Hostile reactions to the ISAKABA BOYS story also came from Togba Nah-Tipoteh of the Alliance for Peace and Democracy, Varney Sherman of COTOL and the New Deal Movement. Instead of merely reacting to these claims, the opposition parties should have used this occasion to unveil a well-developed crime prevention/mitigation policy. Criticisms without proffering solutions only strengthen the hands of the incumbent party. A country so polarized needs political and non-political leaders that provide alternatives that bridge existing chasms and solve problems that have mired the country from moving forward.

Liberty Party’s Standard Bearer Charles Brumskine also took issue with the Sirleaf government’s budget for 2006-2007; arguing that it is bloated. However, proactive steps to influence political decision making within the current government or to assert the interests of their constituency have been rare. Many of the individuals who were known to have been leading spokespersons for these parties have also quietly resigned from the political scene. Former candidates Joseph Korto of the Liberian Equal Rights Party (LERP) and John Morlu of the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) joined the Sirleaf Administration and have since remained understandably docile and pliant. The rest of the field has literally disappeared. The vigilance of democratic activists who joined the Sirleaf government has become subdued, expectedly so. No one expects them to publicly criticize a government that they are an integral part of. However, the expectation is that they will work even harder to put into place policies and programs that they espoused in the past. A gaping hole exists as it pertains to the voices of those Liberians who do not feel that the government represents their interest.

The void that partisan opposition parties occupy is one that only those organizations can fill. Partisan opposition parties, if functional, have the capacity to serve as the outlets through which citizens who feel unrepresented and underserved by the ruling government are empowered to give voice to their political aspirations and expectations. Arguably, in the absence of data, one can still suggest that an active opposition political party, unhindered by despotic politics, can serve as a deterrent to military intrusion into civilian preserves. In general, an effective civil society assures transparency, accountability, and equitable distribution of public resources. The ruling party can also enjoy legitimacy if it invites opposition politics. Hence, having crossed the thresholds of bedlam and mayhem, Liberians cannot afford to return to such points of incivility. A vibrant democratic opposition to the ruling party is critical to building a sustainable democracy in Liberia.

If societies that have high participation rates among opposition parties make accelerated progress toward democracy, they are not necessarily easy to create or to sustain over the long-term. This article was written to initiate dialogue about how to create climates where functioning opposition parties can enhance transition toward democracy. Here, I will now make an attempt to discuss reasons why opposition parties in Liberia have historically being ineffective.

The ineffectiveness of the opposition parties has not exclusively being the product of external forces, rather its own fragmentation. All too frequently, the divided opposition groups or parties have been unable to achieve cohesion and resulted to the inability to form coalitions. In such a climate, and given the overwhelming need to overcome the dictatorial clasp that either Doe or Taylor and those before them had on power, many wondered whether the opposition parties played any role than legitimizing the dictatorial tendencies of the ruling party. Some may even argue that this is a form of blaming the victim, but I do not believe that this is the case. Clearly, as many now look back, they have come to frame some of the opposition leaders of the bygone era (especially during the Tolbert, Doe and Taylor eras), given the scarcity of integrity and consistency, including the self-indulgence, as people who thwarted democratic progress.

Characteristically, opposition political parties have proven to be just as undemocratic as the governments that they criticize. Emerging rights advocates have loss confidence in many of their predecessors as they watch their successive missteps. One irrefutable fact remains: the country is still searching for principled advocates for change that are unhinged from the “bygone political opposition leaders” whose results are only substandard and disappointing. I must add that the 2006 elections were different, at least three coalition presidential candidates participated in the elections: Coalition of the Transformation of Liberia (COTOL), represented by Varney Sherman, Alliance for Peace and Democracy (FAPL) represented by Togba-Nah Tipoteh, and the United Democratic Alliance (UDA), represented by John Morlu. Perhaps, had opposition parties in the past being less arrogant and more concerned with defeating tyranny, the likes of Doe and Taylor would not have emerged.

An authentic democracy is one where the ruling party has an effective opposition.
Especially in a transitional democracy such as Liberia where all conditions are fragile including national security, ethnic divisions, surging poverty, and increasing illiteracy, the lack of a robust opposition only endangers democracy. We cannot transform the nature of politics in Liberia when opposition parties evolve around individual personalities. In the absence of structures within the opposition parties to assure adherence to competitive political processes, they render themselves feeble and fragmented, and devoid of value to the Liberian people whose votes they wooed during the last elections. Until we can establish vigorous multiethnic parties that cut across the parochial divisions and have consistent and predictable internal electoral practices, we are still crawling toward sustainable democracy.

Strengthening Relationship between Ruling and Opposition Parties
The election of a civilian government has and will not automatically usher in political stability and sustainable democracy. Indeed, I cannot help but flash on the memory of dictatorship as I have watched the days, weeks, and months unfold as we unconsciously create another circumstance in which a one-party state might become the norm. The way it was for the Tubman, Doe, and Taylor eras might be the way it will be for the future, if opposition parties fail to change course. While it is true that the inactivity of the opposition political parties have impeded progress toward pluralistic democracy, paradoxically, the Sirleaf administration needs a functioning opposition to garner legitimacy. The quality of any democracy revolves around whether or not there are guarantees for those who do not feel that the ruling party speaks for them to participate in the political process. Moreover, the government cannot identify with detractors like members of YOPMEJOSA without risking the perception that it does not invite and tolerate opposition. That is why the statement by Unity Party’s Chairman, Charles Clarke in which he denied UP’s involvement with YOPMEJOSA was laudable. The more that the government exposes the different machineries of suppression that other governments have used in the past (i.e., dominance of economic resources, the public media, and the violent coercive forces of the military, police and other law enforcement institutions and even self-designated vigilante citizens’ groups) to public scrutiny, it increases its legitimacy. To the contrary, government officials such as H. Boima Fahnbulleh, Jr (National Security Advisor to the Sirleaf administration) who should know better cannot justifiably use the narrow prism of national security to verbally intimidate citizens without chilling the transition to democracy. The paradox remains that despite seeming reformist ferment, many old guards from the opposition movements are still trapped in a vicious cycle of practices that teeter on the brink of despotic politics. The government has to be seen as making genuine efforts to permanently alter the despotic political culture, which many prominent people in the current government fervently criticized in the past.

Some of the opposition parties have been in existence for prolonged periods: True Whig Party (TWP), Liberian Action Party (LAP), and the National Democratic Party (NDPL) and many of their stalwarts have demonstrated that despite the rhetorical recitations, they can easily be bought and sold in the political marketplace. Indeed, the opposition parties have made it known that they are disposable. The fact that our opposition politicians are susceptible to being co-opted, discarded, and disposed of, poses one important question. How will we surmount the difficulties that lie ahead?

The first step is to build capacity for internal democracy (competitiveness and good governance) within their respective organizations. Aspiring opposition leaders must submit themselves to the rank and file of their organizations to decide who to choose to represent them in national elections. Another important point is that for so long, the standard bearers of various parties (both the ruling and opposition parties) have often demonstrated a mistaken perception that once a standard bearer of a party you are a perpetual leader of the party. We have to do away with this flawed tradition and elect a party Chairman who can administer the organizational leadership of the party.

Standard bearers should only serve for the duration of their candidacy and assume their role as an ordinary party member when their tenure is complete. In addition, Liberia is a virgin field for opposition parties not to be reactive, but rather proactive in creating maximum opportunities for healthy tensions between the ruling and opposition parties. Issues such as higher education policy, elimination of barriers to trade, building a fluid and agile labor force, job creation, poverty alleviation, judicial reform, decentralization, equity in resource allocation between the urban and rural sectors, are all issues that the opposition can latch onto. They can develop alternative policy solutions around which they can engage lawmakers and motivate them to convert their suggested interventions into public policy. Such a leadership can only reap dividends in terms of visibility and leverage. I should not pretend that opposition parties have the resources available to deliver on the expectations set forth in this paper. Resource and human capacity are two factors that undermine the viability of opposition parties. I therefore suggest two strategies that opposition parties can embark upon to enhance their chances in this area. First, they should lobby the legislative branch to make some allocation within the budget that supports opposition parties that demonstrate a certain threshold of membership acquisition to ensure their existence in the wake of the elections. Perhaps the parties that are the second and third runner ups in any presidential elections should be assured a designated amount for operations. In addition, opposition parties should take a page from the books of NGOs and establish service delivery organizations that are wings of their institutions, which can be sources of fundraising. Hopefully, philanthropic organizations and foreign donors who support democratic efforts would see significant value in supporting viable opposition parties that demonstrate that they serve a slice of the populace that feels underrepresented.

The extent to which opposition parties merge long before the elections as a deliberate strategy to leverage strengths would enhance the competitiveness of our democracy. Opposition parties must also devise strategies to build durable connections with the Liberian electorate, engage them regularly and assert their voices in the decision making process. Many Liberians may not be affiliated with or less anchored in specific political parties. This presents great opportunity to engage and win them over to their vision of what Liberia should be. Also important is the fact that opposition parties must realize that they are on a delicate path. Public trust in the opposition parties is low, perhaps not because of their doing, but because of the missteps and misdeeds of some previous opposition leaders. In essence, if opposition leaders allow themselves to be marginalized, they risk the conclusions, that they are ill-equipped to govern. The more such sentiments become widespread; it portends ominous implications for democracy. It might erode enthusiasm about democratic participation among ordinary citizens and reinforce patterns that normalized dictatorial tendencies and traditions in the past. Eventually, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will have free-rein to use her incumbency as a free ride to a second term. Constitutionally, President Sirleaf has the right to run for a second term, but we should not make it a free ride. Worse, we risk President Sirleaf hand picking a successor and anointing them, accordingly diminishing the potential for competitiveness.

The Author: Emmanuel Dolo lives with his family in Coon Rapids, Minnesota and can be reached at edolo@sowashco.k12.mn.us. He is the Director of Educational Equity and Integration at South Washington County Schools in Cottage Grove, Minnesota. This article draws from his ongoing research on participatory governance practices in Anglophone West African nations.
© 2006 by The Perspective
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