Wed, Jun 28, 2017 - Page 8 News List

The correct functioning of a loyal opposition

By Su Yen-tu 蘇彥圖

The existence of a loyal opposition is a very important normative principle of contemporary constitutional democracy, but in Taiwan it has never been given the importance or attention it deserves, either in theory or in practice.

People might intuitively think that this principle requires opposition parties to accept and perform some kind of loyal duty and commentators often invoke this idea when they cast doubt on an opposition party or criticize its actions.

For example, some people say that a particular opposition party is disloyal because it does not sincerely identify with the nation and its Constitution and it does not give them its genuine loyalty. Others say that such and such an opposition party does nothing but oppose for opposition’s sake, so it is not loyal enough.

No matter which party is in power, opposition parties that harbor ulterior motives or are resistant to change are often accused of stirring up political strife and obstructing the nation’s development.

Opposition parties and dissidents do have certain responsibilities with regard to justice and the common good of the whole community.

However, when we subject dissenting voices to tests of loyalty, if we are not careful it could have the effect of encouraging authoritarianism and suppressing democracy.

The idea of a loyal opposition as a principle of constitutional government was first proposed in 19th-century Britain and is seen as one of its greatest contributions to political civilization, because it broke with the former pedantic concept of loyalty. It means readily accepting the legitimacy of minority opposition to the majority, and it created a democratic system that allows opposition parties to play an important role.

In other words, one cannot say that an opposition party is disloyal because it criticizes and opposes those in power, but more than that, it should also be recognized that when opposition parties fearlessly raise opposing views, they do so out of a lofty and precious idea of loyalty.

In this regard, contemporary judicial philosopher Jeremy Waldron said that this principle of constitutional democracy serves the purpose of warning the ruling party that it should not cast doubt on the loyalty of its opponents lightly.

These days dissidents and political opponents do not get locked up at the drop of a hat, and that might be a valuable democratic achievement in itself, but if the nation wants to deepen its constitutional democracy, it is not enough to safeguard political dissidents’ freedom of expression and their right to political participation. Opponents must be given genuine respect.

For example, if an opposition party offers pertinent criticism or constructive advice, the ruling party should willingly accept it rather than obstinately sticking to its guns. It might be a tough moral challenge for a ruling party to show that much respect for the opposition, but that is what one should expect in a democracy.

After all, the democracy Taiwanese believe in has never been one in which the minority must simply submit to the majority.

Su Yen-tu is an assistant research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institutum Iurisprudentiae and a member of the Taipei Society.

Translated by Julian Clegg

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