Antonio Mwanza says he does not want to grow old in the opposition and has decided to join the ruling Patriotic Front and be its donkey.
Antonio says “siungakotele mu opposition (you can’t grow old in the opposition). Every time, you can’t just be escorting your friends…To be very honest, I have been with FDD for the last four years and I have given my heart and my soul to FDD. I have given it all that I could. I think any human being who is honest and fair would appreciate the value, commitment and loyalty that I have given to FDD. But I also believe very strongly that as a leader, there is need to grow at an individual level as well as at party level and national level. I think where we are going now as a country, we are at a crossroads. The country is faced with numerous problems and there is need for us to put our energies together as opposed to using the challenges of the country for us to find a way to benefit.”
Indeed, Antonio did very well as an opposition politician. We can’t fault him. It is his constitutional right to join a political party of his choice and associate with whoever he wants. And now, for the reasons he has given, he has decided to join the Patriotic Front.
It is not hard for one to do a bit of good. What is hard is to do good all one’s life and never do anything bad, to act consistently in the interests of the broad masses, the young people and the revolution, and to engage in arduous struggle for decades on end. That is the hardest thing of all!
Clearly, there is an element of political opportunism here. Political opportunism refers to the attempt to maintain political influence, in a way which disregards relevant ethical or political principles.
Political opportunism connotes the abandonment of principles or compromising political goals. In that case, the original relationship between means and ends is lost. It may indeed be the case that means become ends in themselves, or that the ends become the means to achieve goals quite different from what was originally intended. Political principles can also be diluted, reinterpreted or ignored, purely for the sake of promoting a contrived political expediency. In consequence, a coherent rationale for being in the same organisation is gradually lost; members may then drift away or the organisation may decline, split or disintegrate.
In politics, it is sometimes necessary to insist on political principles. How political principles are to be implemented is therefore usually open to some interpretation, and in part a personal responsibility. This creates the possibility that the same action is justifiable with reference to different principles, or that how a principle should be put into practice is interpreted in different ways. Just how principled an action is may therefore be open to dispute. Hence, there is potential for deception in the way that principled behaviour, and deviation from it, is understood and justified. This becomes critically important in understanding opportunism insofar as it is a departure from principled behaviour.
Political integrity typically demands an appropriate combination of principled positions and political flexibility that produce a morally consistent behaviour in specific circumstances. Thus, whereas it may be necessary to seize a political opportunity when it presents itself, it should ideally be seized also with an appropriate motivation, and on a principled basis to ensure that the right things are done for the right reasons.
This ideal may be difficult to honour in practice, with the result that opportunistic mistakes are made.
In his famous book Rules for Radicals, community organiser Saul Alinsky for instance comments that in political organisations, quite often, the right things are done for the wrong reasons, and conversely that the wrong things are done for perfectly “correct” reasons – presumably because of differentials in the existing understandings about why something is actually being done, and what the real effect of it will be.
If power is wielded by means of special knowledge others don’t have access to, such differentials are obviously likely to persist. This is likely to be the case, insofar as confidentiality and secrecy are necessary in politics – if the wrong people get hold of vital information, this could have unfavourable political effects. Thus, people may know part of the story but not the full story because, for political reasons, it cannot be told. The corollary is that people imagine reasons for political action that differs from the real reasons. This can get in the way of a truly principled approach to politics.
In fact, Alinsky claimed: “In this world, laws are written for the lofty aim of ‘the common good’, and then acted out in life on the basis of the common greed. In this world, irrationality clings to man like his shadow, so that the right things are done for the wrong reasons – afterwards, we dredge up the right reasons for justification.”
If “there is no such thing as an honest politician”, this need not mean that all politicians are liars, but just that they are often not in a position to know or reveal the “complete picture” and thus express selected truths relevant to their actions, rather than all possible truths that could be told. In that sense, it is quite possible to be a “principled” politician – if that was not so, then – arguably – all politicians are opportunists. Yet if all politicians are opportunists – as many cynics believe – it becomes difficult to explain a politician’s professional motivations . Namely, if their purpose is based only or primarily on self-interest –disregarding higher principles, which is the hallmark of opportunism – then politics is the least likely vocation, since it requires that politicians serve a collective interest or cause bigger than themselves. They would then be better off in a line of business where they can just pursue their own interest to the full. If they are able to be politicians, they could easily do so. The question is then why they don’t, if indeed they are only out to serve themselves.
The counter-argument to this interpretation is that politicians may start out in their career as hopeful idealists aiming to serve the community, but as soon as they become deeply entangled in political processes, they abandon their high ideals because they must reconcile many contradictory situations, and in the process begin to compromise themselves. Their political position, originally a means to a higher end, becomes an end in itself: a lifestyle.
The tragedy of opportunistic politics is often that, by forsaking principles to make political gains, it becomes difficult or impossible to distinguish and evaluate political success and failure appropriately, and draw appropriate conclusions. Because for such an evaluation, it must be possible to specify clearly to what extent it has been possible to realise the agreed principles being advocated. If it is not even clear anymore what those principles are, a failure may be hailed as a success, or a success decried as a failure, giving rise to intense disputes about their real significance. It may create disorientation and confusion that, in turn, opportunists use to further their aims.
If opportunistic politics, in its urge for success, confuses what a political movement really stands for, or continually changes its story to suit the moment, any profound evaluation of its experiential record becomes impossible, and the past can be re-interpreted in any number of ways to suit the political purposes of the present or those of the future. In turn, that undermines the possibility of cumulative and collective learning from political experience in a truthful way. In that case, the errors and problems of the past are more likely to be repeated. Normally, one would say that “if a course of action doesn’t work, try something else”, but if it is no longer even clear what worked and what didn’t in the past, or they are mixed up with each other, current political activity may keep reproducing the problematic patterns and traditions, the essence of which the political actors are only dimly aware of. And that promotes a growing discrepancy between the motives political actors said they had, and their real motives – which breeds cynicism, loss of purpose, lack of accountability, and the loss of the aspiration to work for political ideals.
According to a popular saying, “there is no such thing as an honest politician” (politicians will accentuate certain truths at the expense of other truths), but there is such a thing as a “principled” politician working within clearly defined moral boundaries, which rule out doing “just anything”. A politician may be a “clever talker” who can justify anything, but if there is a big discrepancy between the talk and what is actually being done, people are usually unlikely to believe it for very long. They know that things “do not match up”, even if they do not know exactly why, and may become indifferent to whatever is being said.
Continual political opportunism ultimately reduces the scope of politics to a visionless realpolitik or a barren pragmatism that may only function to maintain the status quo, and in which people deceive themselves about their own motivations and those of others. This makes life even more difficult for politicians, in their attempt to persuade people to work together for common goals.