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Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition

December 8, 2013

How can a democratic government avoid two related problems that threaten its existance?  How can it deal with a violent or undemocratic opposition?  Once in power, what prevents a government from staying in power for decades?  The last chapter of Karen Armstrong’s book The Battle for God addresses this question.  So does a BBC opinion article called Is democracy overrated?

Suppressing an opposition is dangerous because doing that can make it violent.  The members of that group come to believe that violence is their only option.  Even when it’s successful, it may mean that there’s only one group left with political power.  It must be a temptation for any ruling party to use the law or the police to suppress opposition parties.  By doing that, elections become meaningless exercises.  The ruling party gets elected again and again.  Revolution may be the only way out of that situation.

There are lots of examples of governments, both democratic and autocratic, to illustrate these dangers.  The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is described in Karen Armstrong’s book.  It began as a populist and benevolent society, but soon was seen as a threat by the government.  They banned the Brotherhood and threw the leaders in jail.  These actions did make it more militant.  The government had to rule the country by force, ignoring freedom and civil rights.

Events in the Soviet Union are described in the BBC article.  A popular revolution quickly turned into a one-party state with sham elections.  The government continued to espouse the ideals of the revolution but the reality felt by ordinary people was quite different.  It turned into a police state ruled by the party.  The country was called a dictatorship in spite of the elections.

Even Canada, a country with a long history of democracy, had an episode of violent opposition to the established government.  It was the October Crisis of 1970.  A separatist group was setting off bombs in an effort to achieve their political purposes.  Today, they would be called a terrorist group.  This uprising was mostly dealt with through recognized legal processes, although the government did grant itself extraordinary powers for a short time.

So, how should a government deal with these situations while still retaining popular support?  The first thing necessary is a strong and loyal opposition.  The British title “Her majesty’s loyal opposition” says it all.  If ever the people don’t agree with the governing party, they can switch their votes to the opposition party.  An independant judiciary is also necessary.  It has to be outside of political influence and to protect the civil rights of citizens.  It alone can use legal means against violent groups in a way that’s seen to be independant of government.  Finally, participation of the public in government at all levels is critical.  It’s the only way that governments can maintain the support of the people.  A government that restricts participation to an elite group won’t enjoy popular support for long.

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