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?