Stop stifling debate in parliament

Stop stifling debate in parliament

On Tuesday July 18, 2017, the Speaker of Parliament blocked the official leader of the opposition in Parliament, Hon Mathibeli Mokhothu, from debating the issue of the death of our First Lady Mrs Lipolelo Thabane.  It would appear the Speaker is determined to turn Parliament into a parochial institution where key issues are not discussed. It is this worrying development that we will discuss below.

The ruling by the Speaker to prevent Honourable Mokhothu MP from debating the death of the First Lady in Parliament does not augur well for our democracy.
The attempt to thwart the debate was not only unfortunate but mischievous and downright undemocratic.  To scuttle Honorable Mokhothu from speaking about this death in Parliament where he is a leader of Official opposition is unheard of in democracies worldwide.

The Leader of the official opposition had not only the right to speak at length in Parliament after the Prime Minister had spoken, but he has the legitimate right to raise issues like the unfortunate death of “M’e Lipolelo Thabane and demand its investigation.  The above action challenges the role of the official opposition in Parliament.

What is the role of the official opposition in Parliament?
It is important to note that the main function of the official opposition is to provide an alternative within the system. In this discussion, official or formal opposition means a political party with fewer seats in parliament as opposed to the majority party or coalition of parties with majority seats, which governs the country with large number of seats in the National Assembly.
While there are many definitions of democracy, there is consensus among scholars that “a democracy can almost be defined in terms of the existence of an effective opposition because without these opposition parties,” democratic consolidation cannot be achieved.

Habib and Taylor quoted Jun and Ian Shapiro (1995) argued that opposition parties “facilitated a peaceful alteration in government. Parliamentary parties are perceived as institutional sites where ‘counter political elites . . . (can) organise and inform themselves so as to be able to contest for power’. Should such institutional sites not exist, ‘crises for the government are correspondingly more likely to become crises for the democratic regime.”  This then underlines their second argument, that a parliamentary opposition ensures that a citizenry’s unhappiness with government is not automatically translated into a delegitimation of the democratic order.

Lesotho has a legitimate government and the recent actions of the Speaker not only delegitimise our government but our political system as well. This is one other indicative fact that shows the dire need for parliamentary reforms. Nevertheless, the very deed of the Speaker sends a wrong signal about the commitment to reforms that the country desperately needs.
How will the Honourable Speaker drive the Parliamentary reforms agenda when he unilaterally appears to be an obstacle to mere parliamentary debates?

Why official opposition is important for our democracy
Lesotho is likely to embark on constitutional reforms soon. How then do we even contemplate to obstruct the Leader of the Opposition from Speaking about the death of Mrs Lipolelo Thabane in parliament?

Surely, this precedent is not only unfortunate but threatens salient aspects of Lesotho’s democracy. This is not what one can expect from a seasoned Speaker of Parliament like Ntate Motanyane.
That action was so unprofessional to the extent it made us wonder what’s going on in our democracy. How on earth do you prevent the leader of the opposition from debating the death of a country’s First Lady and a citizen of Lesotho?

What is Parliament for if issues of this nature are not debated in parliament? Maybe we should remind ourselves why the opposition is vital for our democracy lest we forget its important function.
Any attempt to create a parochial parliament must be robustly resisted. The very idea of reforms means that our parliament must hold the government accountable.
Why then defeat the idea of a robust official opposition when it is performing its role? We cannot act like there is no official opposition in parliament when there is one.
The opposition must always be available to keep the government in check in all matters of national importance.

The reason is simple, the absence of an official opposition means that national policies cannot be extensively debated. This system produces a parochial parliament whereby there is concurrence on all issues, even where there are glaring problems like the unaccounted death of the current Prime Minister’s wife.
The official opposition must vehemently oppose this unfortunate direction that the parliament appears to be taking.

The role of official opposition in Parliament
An opposition as a minority representative in parliament opposes the majority and presses for alternative solutions. It is generally agreed that a structured opposition is a viable and sustainable part of a democratic polity.
The absence of opposition would mean that there would be no checks and balances in Parliament. Hon Mokhothu MP, as the Leader of Opposition, deserves to be heard.
Mokhothu is in Parliament to debate such matters, and the Speaker cannot under any circumstances, deny him that constitutional right.
In the British political system, one minority party exercises the function of political opposition to the government, most importantly scrutinising government policies and providing an alternative course of direction.

There is recognition of the formal function of opposition as highlighted by the ingenious notion of His Majesty’s Opposition and allowing the official opposition to the government while remaining loyal to the King.  The opposition, therefore, becomes a shadow government, a measure that forces it to remain loyal to the King.
Political opposition, on the other hand, in the British political system and, above all, formal opposition remained a vividly salient notion of British polity.
Several authors insist that political opposition should not only be considered in the narrow framework of minority/majority relations but that set of reference should include more core elements of the political system whereby the political opposition have the main function of representing the contingency of the public domain.
Neunreither (1998) argues that the government presents a policy conjecture and the opposition demonstrates that you could arrive at a different conclusion using the same data. Hon Mokhothu is indeed doing the duty that he has been elected for.

Opposition parties provide a viable institutional outlet for people who are unhappy with the government performance, such as the failure to inform the public about the circumstances or investigations surrounding the unfortunate death of the country’s First Lady.
It is through these institutions that government is kept in check. Therefore, opposition parties present a constant reminder to the government that if its performance is not up to standard they would be removed from power come the next elections.

I had to traverse this route to highlight the importance of the opposition in a democracy. The scuttling of Hon Mokhothu’s attempt to debate the death of Mrs Lipolelo Thabane in Parliament was not only unfortunate but undemocratic.  This un-parliamentary action by the Speaker is not helpful to our democracy. In fact, it is politically damaging to our democracy. We expect a robust parliament where the leader of the Official opposition must play his constitutional role.

The death of Mrs Lipolelo Thabane must be debated and as a nation we must be informed what government is doing about it. The role of the opposition is therefore to press the government to explain to the nation about the steps taken being taken to investigate it.
We expect the opposition to be loud in discussing this matter. Similarly, the Speaker of Parliament must allow the government to account. That is what Parliament is for, to hold the government accountable.

Dr Fako Johnson Likoti

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