Keynote speech by the National Assembly President Tsetska Tsacheva at the European Conference of Presidents of Parliament of 47 member states of the Council of Europe
Cyprus, June 11, 2010 (First Session of the Conference on “Rights and Responsibilities of the Opposition in a Parliament”
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,
Parliamentary opposition in present day Europe embodies the following paradox: it is never completely opposition-minded. This is especially true when opposition pursues a tangible role in the political and parliamentary process.
The easiest way to put it is by pointing out that opposition plays a particularly important role in the context of parliamentary representation in Europe today. This may sound trivial but nonetheless we have to repeatedly bring this fact to mind as in the heated polemics of daily political life we tend to forget it. The unequivocal reasoning of this assertion is rooted in the constitutionally embedded function of representation. It binds to governance responsibility not only the ruling majority but the opposition as well.
I am not going to dwell on the legal constitutional grounds of the highly important role the opposition plays in a parliamentary rule. Instead I would focus on its functional dimensions defined by the logic of the political process. These dimensions could be structured in three main groups: first, effects on the political parties; second, on the parliamentary institution and third, on the democratic rule in general.
To a political party the time in opposition has unquestionable advantages with regard to its institutional and expert development. When a party traverses from government to opposition, Parliament turns into a base for maintaining its government and expert potential. Parliament is the venue where former and future ministers continue being involved in politics and where they have the opportunity to actively participate in the policy elaboration process. The shadow cabinets in Great Britain are a telling example in this regard. Safeguarding and further enhancing this potential provides for maintaining continuity and achieving professionalization of governance. When an opposition party takes the responsibility of forming a new cabinet, its capacity developed throughout the opposition period turns into a prerequisite for effective governance.
This particular aspect provides opportunities but also breeds obligations. To a political party being in Parliament, albeit in opposition, is a condition for survival. Typically, the failure of a party to garner seats in Parliament for two consecutive terms entails its marginalization. On the other hand, being in Parliament cannot be an end in itself for the opposition parties. They have to take advantage of the parliamentary activities in order to streamline their expert potential as a corrective to the majority. The opposition’s pro-active and constructive engagement in plenary debates is both its primary responsibility as well as a prerequisite for growth of its governance capacity.
In regard to the institutional functioning of Parliaments, opposition plays even more crucial role, especially so in countries involved in the European integration processes that require from Members of Parliament an ever growing technocratic expertise. This inevitably leads to transformation in the parliamentary debate which evolves from an arena of ideological clashes to a space where various governance visions intercept. This process provides unique opportunity for the parliamentary institution to gain recognition as a center of policy shaping and open expert discussion. In order to fully utilize this opportunity, opposition has a key role in its capacity of an active and constructive player. By way of parliamentary oversight procedures opposition could contribute to enhanced transparency in the process of policy making. On the other hand, through its representatives in the parliamentary committees it could initiate debating and adoption of new governance decisions.
In the EU member-states opposition avails of yet another instrument for influencing the process of governance. The membership of opposition parties with the European Party Families enables them to exercise influence at national level. Thus they become engaged in the EU policy making which adds further importance to their role. The new European realities compel the opposition parties to transform from mere critics of majority to generators of policies.
In a parliamentary democracy opposition is the most powerful instrument of minority interests’ representation. This representation ensures the overall legitimacy of government as well as the integrity of the nation. In the current macro-political environment, opposition has yet another function of importance for the democratic governance and that is the normalization of extreme parties, a frequent European phenomenon of late. The analysis of European party systems proves that the institutionalization of extreme, anti-systemic parties into parliamentary opposition brings for their democratization and for softening of both their political rhetoric and their extreme political visions.
In order to effectively implement the functions mentioned above, opposition needs to be given institutional incentives for active engagement. This kind of motivation could be secured by way of:
- Establishing more committees on parity basis;
- Rotational chairmanship of parliamentary committees;
- Giving the opposition a possibility to influence the agenda-setting for plenary sittings and committees meetings;
- Setting higher requirements for quorum and majority vote when important decisions are adopted in plenary and in the committees;
- Expanding the expert capacity of the parliamentary institution.
The process of providing the opposition with extended opportunities should be careful and well balanced. An imperative prerequisite for that should be the presence of a responsible and constructive opposition in parliament. If this prerequisite is absent, such kind of institutional measures may eventually give rise to premises for blocking the parliamentary institution’s work. In this sense, whatever rules and institutional instruments we use for inducing opposition into the parliamentary process, we should not neglect one fundamental condition: being in opposition is above all a responsibility – parliamentary, political and broadly social.
Thank you for your attention!