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The politics of Opposition

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Tue, Oct 5, 2010

The United Workers Party (UWP), the official opposition in the Dominica Parliament, is in the news again. The UWP, which won three of the 21 seats at stake in last December’s general elections, had boycotted the sittings of the Parliament, claiming irregularities in those elections. Following the absence from three successive sittings of two of its elected Parliamentarians, (the third, Roseau MP Norris Prevost, had broken the boycott), the seats of former UWP leader and one-time Prime Minister Edison James, and his colleague Hector John, were declared vacant.{{more}} Though this action was branded “unconstitutional” by UWP Leader Ron Greene, who was unsuccessful at the December poll, both John and James contested by-elections held in July of this year and were returned to Parliament.

The UWP trio returned to Parliament last week but walked out again and the Party has vowed to keep up the boycott. Whether it will reach the stage of seats again having to be declared vacant and new by-elections called once more, is unclear, but the UWP sees it as part of its strategy to bring the matter of the conduct of the last general elections to local, regional and international attention. In the meantime it runs the risk of making a mockery of the Parliamentary process, of causing scarce national resources to be wasted on by-elections and even of failing to carry out its duty to provide representation to the people who voted for the MPs.

In support of its claim, the UWP has made reference to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela which has just held Parliamentary elections. There, the Opposition had boycotted the last polls, held in 2005. As a result, the party of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, swept the polls and had a free hand in passing legislation in the National Assembly, not having to contend with any braking minority. However, realising the error of such tactics, the Venezuelan Opposition returned to the electoral fray last Sunday and were vindicated by gaining a blocking one-third minority in the Parliament. President Chavez now cannot make fundamental constitutional changes without some sort of minority support.

Strangely, the UWP uses the Venezuelan example as justification of its boycott tactics. One would have thought that common sense would dictate otherwise. It is precisely because the 2005/2010 boycott failed to protect the interests of those they represent in Parliament, that the Venezuelan Opposition recognized the futility of such an action. One hopes that their Dominican counterparts would also realise this, albeit belatedly.

Parliamentarians are elected by voters to advance and protect their interests, taking advantage of the avenues open to MPs and utilizing to the full, their rights and privileges as members of Parliament. Being in this august body brings with it greater opportunities to raise issues of national and local importance. One can fully understand grievances over such matters as the conduct of elections, but unless there is a clear alternative or extra-parliamentary strategy, Parliamentary boycotts often have the result of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. The Government simply continues with its Parliamentary programme, unfettered by opposition criticisms and objections in the highest forum.

One recalls here in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Parliamentary Opposition in this current Parliament, also employing such tactics. It became counter-productive when the Opposition refused to take advantage of live radio broadcast of Parliamentary proceedings (a right denied under the previous administration), but instead withdrew to its own Headquarters for discussions of its own. Fortunately, the New Democratic Party (NDP) did not allow the seats of their Parliamentarians to become vacant and wisely returned to Parliament. A similar boycott of the constitutional reform process was also undertaken, but again aborted before the referendum.

These bring to the fore the matter of the role of the Opposition, the Parliamentary Opposition in particular. What is its responsibility to the people it represents? Do Parliamentarians not have the responsibility to represent ALL the people of a constituency, those who voted for them and those who did not, alike, in Parliament? This is a responsibility not confined to those in the government alone, opposition MPs also represent their entire constituency. It is a subject which needs national airing and debate so we can develop a consensus and avoid narrow, petty actions, which do little to further the cause of our democracy.