What it Means to Have a Responsible Political Opposition

What it Means to Have a Responsible Political Opposition

By Ambassador Philip S. Kosnett, March 24, 2021

Like many people living in Kosovo, recently I’ve spent time discussing the role of the opposition in government formation, and more broadly, day-to-day governance. From my conversations, I’m struck that many in the public – and some politicians – seem uncertain on the role of a responsible opposition in Kosovo’s parliamentary system.

In a functioning democracy, constructive performance in opposition is a form of leadership just as important to protecting and serving the citizens as is service in a governing coalition. When Kosovo citizens vote, they endow all 120 members of the Assembly with the same duties and responsibilities as defined by the constitution and the laws that flow from the constitution. A majority elects a new government, while a minority remains in the opposition with the same loyalty to Kosovo’s constitution as the majority – and the same responsibility to the citizens as a ruling party or coalition.

Not all politicians see it this way, sadly. Early in my time as ambassador, one party president told me matter-of-factly that his job in opposition was to make it as difficult as possible for the government to function, so frustrated voters would return his party to power.

At least this politician was being honest about his priorities. Judging by the actions of many Kosovo parties over the years, he was not alone in holding this philosophy of “obstructionist opposition.” Political violence is the most extreme and unacceptable example of political obstructionism. But the tradition of opposition parties boycotting the work of the Assembly to prevent national budgets and other vital legislation from being passed, and the practice of outgoing parties withholding information from incoming rivals during times of government transition, are equally insidious.

I am skeptical when some politicians in Kosovo act as if they will somehow benefit from demonstrating the willingness to throw a wrench into the gears of governance. Recent trends in Kosovo’s elections show that people yearn for change, and political parties are grappling with how to reshape themselves to respond to the needs of the public.

So – what should a responsible opposition do? It should scrutinize government actions, not for its own self-interest, but for the for the good of the country. It should support and strengthen a country’s institutions. It has an obligation to participate constructively in parliamentary life and hold the government to account. The opposition need not support every government proposal, surely, but neither must it reflexively reject or obstruct every idea. The opposition has an obligation to participate, do its homework, and provide alternatives. It’s not enough just to say no. When the system works, when government and opposition debate with the goal of improving policies and legislation, the entire country can benefit.

A responsible opposition is obliged to contribute constructively to Assembly deliberations, for the ideas and proposals which emerge to be stronger. Incendiary rhetoric and misinformation in any medium are counter-productive to fruitful debate. If its ideas do not carry the day, the opposition still has an obligation to respect and abide by the laws legally enacted – just as the government has an obligation to respect the will and independence of the courts.

For this to work, the governing party or coalition must also demonstrate sincerity in its engagement with opposition parties – listen to their ideas, and accept them as partners who share responsibility for governance. This imperative is not unique to Kosovo. A number of times in recent years, the two parties in the U.S. Congress have been unable to reach agreement on a national budget, resulting in government shutdowns and serious disruptions to the lives of citizens. In my experience most Americans don’t blame one or the other party for these episodes of dysfunction – they blame “the politicians in Washington,” whom they often see as out of touch with the needs of citizens, regardless of party. Nobody wins – not the parties, not the people.

When the Assembly voted in the Kurti government on March 22, opposition parties showed what responsible opposition looks like. They did not boycott the proceedings. Party leaders congratulated the new government, acknowledging the will of the people as expressed in the February 14 election. They expressed concrete concerns and disagreement with the incoming government’s initial statements of policy, pledging to hold the new government accountable and to work for the good of the country. And members of the Assembly voted, showing the people of Kosovo where they stood.

On March 23, the acting president of PDK demonstrated similar mature leadership by announcing that PDK had decided not to turn to the courts, as had been discussed, to attempt to overturn the new Prime Minister’s popular mandate.

Opposition parties now face an important decision – whether to participate in balloting for a new President, or to attempt to derail the process and lead Kosovo into a new round of elections.

Let me be clear. My government is not asking, publicly or privately, that any member of parliament vote for any particular individual for President. What we are asking is that the process move forward, to avoid a return to costly new elections and more months of dysfunction during a time of pandemic and economic crisis.

Some opposition politicians have expressed to me the concern that if they participate in the process, they will be seen as, de facto, supporting the sole candidate. I believe this is a misreading both of Kosovo law and of practicality. With regard to the law – in 2011 Kosovo’s Constitutional Court affirmed the obligation of all MPs to participate in Assembly plenary sessions and adhere to the relevant procedures to select a president. This does not mean they must vote in favor of any candidate; it does, however, mean they have a duty to participate in an essential step in Kosovo’s democratic process.

As for practicality – if opposition parties wish to publicly distance themselves from the current candidate, they have every right. If they want to support an alternative candidate, they can do so. If members of the Assembly wish to functionally abstain by putting blank ballots in the box, the law allows for this. But it is vital that every member of the Assembly show up and participate. Choosing not to boycott and obstruct is a sign of political maturity.

The people of Kosovo have demonstrated their commitment to democracy at the ballot box, participating in increasingly free and fair elections in the face of daunting obstacles. On February 14, people braved COVID and a snowstorm to turn out to the polls in unprecedented numbers – because they see their vote as the democratic expression for change. It was a proud moment that struggling democracies in the region and beyond could learn from. Now it is time for Kosovo’s politicians to show their respect for the people by rethinking Kosovo’s politics, so that the tactics of obstructionism are no longer considered “business as usual.”

Published on March 24, 2021 by INDEKSONLINE