The Value of Conflict

Sometimes a good fight is the only way forward.

In the wake of Zanzibar’s recent elections, a friend and I had an argument about the proposed form of the new Government. The two main parties had agreed before the event to create a Government of National Unity, a structure that normally exists only when one party is unable to form a workable Government on its own or (as in the case of Zimbabwe) to forestall serious political conflict. As it happened, the results were such that the incumbent party, CCM, took the Presidency against a stiff challenge from CUF by a margin of a single percentage point – 50.1% to 49.1%. The two parties also divided the Parliamentary seats and representation in the House of Parliament between themselves.

Just to make the point starkly: between them, the two parties accounted for 99.2% of the votes cast for the Presidency, and together account for 100% of the Houses of Representatives and Parliament.

This state of affairs led to the aforementioned argument. My position was that this new Government of National Unity makes a mockery of the democratic system by removing every last vestige of accountability from the political system for the next five years, essentially installing a dictatorship by coalition. The biggest bone of contention for me is that there is literally no opposition at all. The losing Presidential candidate is to be installed as a Vice President and is thus intimately vested in the success and legitimacy of the Government; the Cabinet will involve senior figures from both parties; the ‘Government’ line will now encompass every single member of Parliament and people’s representative. In other words, in the organs of state, there is no-one who by function serves to question the actions of Government.

My friend, a colleague, took a different approach. He argued that the Government of National Unity is a step forward because it heightens the democratic representation of the Government in two major ways. Firstly, the unity Government was a proposal that was put to referendum and carried with a 70% positive vote. Secondly, it also provides a voice to the close to 50% of the population that has traditionally voted for the opposition but has never seen them enter Government (usually due to the underhand flaunting of democratic electoral norms). He pointed out that unity or coalition Governments existed in many other countries, and may have drawbacks, but could not be said to be undemocratic. Secondarily, though an ancillary point, he argued that the historical workings of opposition politics in Zanzibar were incredibly weak: when it has had the chance to ask searching questions of the incumbent Government, the opposition in Zanzibar has never done so. It has never used its role in Parliament to provide scrutiny of the actions of the Government. In this he’s surely correct.

I think both positions have merit, but the reason this concerns me so much is that the value in the democratic system lies only partly in representation. In virtually every country in the world the ‘representativeness’ of Government could be enhanced by coalition even when the ruling party has an absolute majority, since it gives all those who voted for losing or unrepresented parties a more direct line into Government. This doesn’t happen is because democratic systems of Government have proven successful because of the conflict they engender through the process of opposition and accountability. Decisions made by a Government are criticised, publicly scrutinised in Parliament and questioned before voting takes place. When a Government has an absolute majority this accountability may not prevent an action being taken, but it does ensure that the action is scrutinized first. This is one of the most valuable aspects of a democratic system – it promotes transparency, critical thinking and crucially, gives the Government a hard ride every time it tries to take a potentially important decision.

This is the big point: contestability. Every decision that the Government takes must be contestable. Ideally there is some possibility that opposition parties and Government objectors can defeat a given policy or law, but this is not necessary for contestability to be useful. As long as there are dissenting voices asking questions and forcing justifications, the public get the benefit of seeing their resources accounted for and debate exists over the best uses of such resources, and the policies used to mobilise and use such resources.

In the case of Zanzibar, the establishment of a coalition Government between the only parties represented in any tier of Government, de facto implies that greater representation is desirable even at the complete cost of contestability and accountability within the system. In some ways I find this understandable: politics in Zanzibar is an even dirtier business than it is in most other countries, with routine accusations of vote rigging each time it goes to the polls. The coalition is in place not to help govern, but to heal wounds caused by guilty hands and guilty consciences from previous elections. And since the practical level of accountability is low in any case, it does not seem like too much of a loss to sacrifice accountability and contestability in policy making for nation-building aims.

Despite this I am deeply disturbed. Conflict is an important part of politics and the new Government structure gives no institutional outlet for this. Even though the role of the opposition in Parliament and providing contestability to policy has been poor or non-existent in recent years, it strikes me as a particularly bad idea to essentially deny the electorate any dissenting voice until the next elections. What happens if the Government starts to put in place laws that limit future democratic voice, or pass doctored audits? The Government is now everyone who can legally ask questions as part of the political process in Parliament. A discontented electorate can do nothing except engage in extra-institutional political demonstration, a dangerous undertaking in Zanzibar.

The importance of contestability is also not restricted to domestically generated actions, policies and expenditures. One of the reasons why I am so profoundly in favour of aid being channelled through Government budgets is so such contestability can be applied to aid as well. There is no more structured way of creating a line of accountability of aid resources to the intended recipients. If each aid-financed activity is part of the budget deliberations, it can be dealt with in the context of the overall spending of the Government and moved according to the decisions of elected representatives. These decisions reflect the genuine competing concerns and interests of political actors. For all the talk of accountability in aid, there seems to be an equal desire to insulate aid from politics; but proper democratic process is probably the best line of accountability that exists.

Of course, all of the foregoing discussion is based on a rosy conception of how democratic politics in most countries works. Parliamentary process and oppositional politics is nowhere near as well functioning as this. Yet the only way to improve the political process is to strengthen it through the areas in which it’s meant to function. Contestability and opposition must be central to this.

Having said all this, I’m well aware that I am in a minority here in Zanzibar. Anyone care to take up the cause of the unity Government and explain to me what I’m missing?

8 thoughts on “The Value of Conflict

  1. D. Watson

    November 5, 2010 at 2:54am

    One thing you may be missing is the internalization of conflict. To apply a simile, one of the advantages of suppliers and processors being different firms is that market competition (read: conflict) sets prices and sends necessary signals of market information about how much to produce and at what cost. When processors own the suppliers outright that market signal is gone … but the underlying market pressures and conflicts are internalized, they don’t vanish. In some cases where market transaction costs are high, the internalized conflict may be welfare improving for consumers.

    You can have an opposition party performing ritualistic, symbolic opposition (which it sounds like has been the case). If the state is fragile enough, real external opposition could have tragic consequences. So an internalization of the opposition may be a chance for the opposition to have some realized teeth, but the conflict is less transparent.

    Maybe.

  2. Ranil Dissanayake

    November 5, 2010 at 5:41am

    Thanks for the comment, and good point. I thought about this a little, since I know this was essentially the political model in Japan for a long time. But this still has political manifestations that are visible from the outside: in Japan it led to many changes in leadership, cabinet composition and factional politics within the dominant party structure and so on.

    This could occur in Zanzibar, with CUF and CCM clashing, but from within the confines of Government. I guess only time will tell.

  3. Sam Gardner

    November 5, 2010 at 6:33am

    One of the biggest advantages of multi-party democracy is not necessarily to choose the best leader, but getting a means to get rid of the worst, and hold them accountable. In a consensus system, you remove the most important check on power abuse, by eliminating the possibility to be on the dock, ever.

  4. Elsie Eyakuze

    November 11, 2010 at 3:48pm

    Thanks Ranil for this thought-provoking post. Steve drew my attention to it a few days back and kicked off a vigorous discussion…on another blog. I thought I would come here and at least partially respond in the right arena. Salaams, na kazi njema.

    “Yes, principles are not unimportant. I am aware that some principles that I consider flexible are not so flexible for others. Some of the principles that I hold dear are unimportant to others. The struggle to understand and compromise and sometimes compete with others who are passionate about the same interests is all part of the fun of debate. It’s pretty obvious that Ranil knows what he is talking about, but he did kinda diss the Zenji politicians. In light of the hard work coming their way, I am keeping far away from that discussion maanake you know how conspiracy-theory we can get. Selective reticence is part of the Tanzanian social contract maintenance toolbox.

    But you and Ranil have made me think, and here’s something I’d like your opinions on: considering that GNUs seem to be cropping up all over the place (was just watching BBC this morning, Iraq is a recent joiner), is there perhaps a blind spot in our modern democratic theories? Has anyone studied that phenomenon? After all, the US is a mature democracy that only superficially changes leadership by passing the baton across the political aisle. Are they a GNU in drag? Is the GNU the next frontier, or a necessary step in the political development of any polity that has serious fractions to bridge? Can compromise be used wisely and deliberately by otherwise competitive monopolistic parties to support state-building over the alternative? Is the US system even competitive? On the same scale as, say Zanzibar?”- from TMR comments section.

  5. Ranil Dissanayake

    November 11, 2010 at 5:20pm

    Hi Elsie, thanks for the comment. Before I respond, can I ask you to post a link to the blog discussion? I’m really keen to see what other Tanzanians apart from my small circle of colleagues and friends here have to say about this – as I said I know I’m in a minority (I don’t mind if people are nasty about me, either! I’ve got thick skin!).

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I do kind of put down the Zanzibari political scene, but not because of my opinion about the individual politicians, but because of its working over the last few years. I know it’s been very contested, and it was relatively recently that CUF even acknowledged the Karume presidency, but it’s also clear to me that at all levels of Government, there’s been little real challenge of Government policy. During the budget discussions – where was the real questioning of spending priorities? When was MKUZA analysed critically for its faults by the politicians? I ask this because I know some of the politicians and wagombea from the recent elections, and they’re capable of making these criticisms. These are sharp, intelligent people (for the most part), so it definitely is a failure of Zanzibari politics that despite the acrimony surrounding the previous results, parliamentary democracy didn’t result in serious questioning of Government policy.

    Also, I should clarify. My problem is not with GNUs per se, but with the lack of contestability in this GNU – i.e. with the fact that there is no opposition.

    On to your main point – it is true that GNUs are increasingly common. However, they’re not a blind spot in political theory, since they have long been very common in Europe, where proportional representation systems of politics (where a party gets representaiton in parliament based on % of votes rather than winning a seat for a geographical localities as in Zanzibar and the UK) are much more common. We need to make a distinctions in the type of GNU seen however.

    First is the common European type, found in Italy, Germany and other countries at almost every election. In these Governments, what happens is that no single party out of 3 or more can form a Government with a majority – and so no single party can effectively govern because it cannot pass a budget, for example. In these circumstances 2 or more parties join together to form a group consisting of more than 50% of the parliamentary seats. I have no problem with this, because there is always a viable opposition which has a significant minority in Parliament. This is the current UK case, where the Conservatives and Lib Dems rule together, and Labour is providing robust criticisms.

    A second type is a coalition Government is a nation building coalition. The example of Iraq and Zimbabwe fit well here: in these two countries massive violence and conflict between ethnicities (or tribes, or regions) has meant that in order to prevent a civil war and the complete collapse of the country into violence and virtual statelessness (as exists in parts of the world already, notably Somalia) a GNU is formed so as to bind the people together. I see this as a necessary evil in some cases. When the options are between chaos and statelessness on one side and no opposition on the other, I’m in favour of no opposition.

    Zanzibar would probably seem to fall under this category. We know there’s been conflict before over election results. However, in my opinion, there has not been any realistic chance of a collapse into statelessness – nor of true chaos. What’s more the elections were, by all accounts, pretty clean – probably at around an international average (not just for developing countries either – though that said, most of the observers I saw were just eating lunch at archipelago’s and virtually none spoke kiswahili, so I don’t know how much they could get from that exercise).

    It was really close, and some from CCM I’ve spoken to have said they expect to lose the next one unless they really get their act together in Government this time.

    My point here is that in Zanzibar, we had the opportunity to have a really strong opposition, with a legitimate chance of winning the next election, and small chance of chaos and complete state failure. So, this GNU fits neither the European type, nor the Iraq/Zim type. It doesn’t have the benefit of an opposition, and probably didn’t prevent complete state failure (I’m sure there would have been some violence though).

    So in the long run, what would be better for Zanzibar? A short period of (deplorable, and sad, of course) violence followed by *real* strong opposition for five years and the chance of a new Government in 2015?

    Or foregoing any conflict at all, and having no opposition to Government for five years?

    I’m not trying to be absolutist about this – I think it’s a legitimate trade off and legitimate question to ask, and it’s also clear Zanzibari’s chose it. That said, I believe strongly in contestable politics where it is possible, and unless someone can show me why Zanzibar *NEEDS* at GNU, I’ll feel it should have been here, too.

    I could be proven completely wrong. CUF and CCM might join hands and govern brilliantly, and we might see five years of great prosperity. and I really, really hope that happens, because a lot of Zanzibar’s troubles have been avoidable.

  6. Ranil Dissanayake

    November 11, 2010 at 5:23pm

    one final point – I don’t agree about the US. I think it’s a genuinely contestible polity. Their political spectrum is compressed compared to, say France, but there’s no doubt there is a huge difference in the ideology of Obama’s administration and of the Bush administration.

    The whole thing with the Tea Party is a brilliant example of contestible politics. Many people are upset with Obama’s policies on Health, for example, and they have formed an oppositional group that takes an extreme position against him. And people are voting for them. This couldn’t happen if they were somehow in a power-sharing agreement with the Democrats.

    For the record, I think Obama’s health reforms, if implemented, will prove to be visionary and the remaking of America for the poor, but I’m glad the Tea Party can exist, even if I disagree with them fundamentally.

  7. Elsie Eyakuze

    November 22, 2010 at 7:25pm

    Thanks Ranil. Been meditating. I think that I agree with you that in essence, contestability is an integral part of healthy competition in a free democracy. Especially when the political contests are not in any way going to nuclear winter the economic functionality of the polity in question. You chose Iraq and Zimbabwe as examples of consensus GNUs? There is an implicit statement in there. Both states are way failed, way, compared to Zanzibar.

    America can afford to throw tea parties. At the end of the day, no matter who slaps whom in Washington, Subway is still Subway and you can buy subsidized farm products and cheap cotton goods at your local mall. Touch the defense budget and see what happens.

    Onto the concept of “real” opposition vs. consensus politics. I find that it can be easy to mistake aggressive competition for “real” opposition. One thing that I have learned in Zanzibar is that it takes more savvy, control and focused aggression to push through a possible solution than it does to champion an idealistic gamble.

    GNUs are not created the same. To build upon the examples you gave: hamstrung European parliaments and basketcase post-despotic hellholes- is there room for other versions? Kenya’s GNU looks nothing like Zanzibar’s, to begin with. There might be something to be learned in Zenj.

    Does it mean that CUF and CCM are going to agree on policy issues? Heh. Not likely. They will fight… over whatever they consider to be important to Zanzibar and no one else. Raising issues like MKUZA is moot on a island where the populace is still incredulous at the idea of paying taxes. One that still gives the finger to a mainland whose hard-earned income is disproportionately supporting the lifestyles of a minority of citizens.

    These issues are where I think the real contestability should lie. MKUZA? We have MKUKUTA and are doing perfectly fine ignoring these acronyms. Because they don’t scale back VAT, bring down the price of oil or solve the problem of schooling for our children. That’s where the battle lines get drawn.

  8. potenzmittel

    November 23, 2010 at 5:57pm

    Grützi
    Toller Blog, aber leider sehe ich nur die hälfte.Ist Euch das bekannt?
    Liegt das an meinem Safari?

    Schöne Grüße aus Köln

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