Legislatures across the world have become arenas of partisan deadlock.
The United States constitution is a strikingly short and clear document,but the system of separation of powers that flows from it continues to be more than confusing. Take the filibuster reform this week. Fed up with the persistent use of the filibuster by Republicans to delay,and even deny,executive and judicial appointments by the Obama administration,the Democrats voted on Thursday to take away this extraordinary option from the minority in the senate. In effect,by a simple majority vote,52-48,Democrats have removed the need for them to have a supermajority (three-fifths of the House,or effectively 60 in the 100-seat Senate) to override attempts at filibustering appointments. Yes,the math is bewildering,and in typically dramatic American shorthand,its called the nuclear option.
Republicans are howling in rage,telling Democrats just what may be round the corner should Obamas party lose control of the Senate next year. For those of us looking in from the outside,the peculiarities of the American legislature promise to make for an enthralling saga those energy-consuming rituals of the sole superpower! But the exercise of a desperate measure,showing how much a legislative minoritys power in the House can depend on the goodwill of the majority,is part of the drift towards excessive partisanship around the world. It will be interesting to see the returns for American democracy after this landmark change,because there is a clear and visible need for legislatures elsewhere to learn new tricks to revive themselves as arenas for managing differences,not forcing partisan deadlocks.
In Thailand,arguably the one country where the debate on how to determine the representative nature of an electoral majority is playing out as a textbook case study,a reform for the Senate has been shot down by the Constitutional Court this week. The ruling Pheu Thai Party had pushed through a vote in the Lower House to mandate that all the members of the Upper House be directly elected. At present,just half of them are,and the rest are appointed.
The confrontational nature of Yingluck Shinawatras governments legislative moves draws from more than the political fight she is waging on behalf of her brother,Thaksin,an autocratic billionaire whos been in exile after a military coup deposed him and to facilitate whose return the Pheu Thai Party tried to steamroller a wide-ranging amnesty bill in Parliament this month. After huge street protests,it failed to clear the Senate.
Thai politics at the moment is easily telescoped in the standoff between the Red and Yellow Shirts. The Red Shirts pledge allegiance to the Shinawatras,who have won every election in the past decade and look to maintain that run,with their social welfare and populist schemes bringing in the vote in the country outside Bangkok. The Yellow Shirts pledge allegiance to the Palace,and are seen to represent the Bangkok establishment. They have support among the business,bureaucratic and judicial elite and the upper middle classes. Claiming to act for the greater good,as a balance to the presumably damagingly populism swaying the gullible masses,they support having nominees of the establishment in the legislature,to keep in check the excesses of an electoral majority.
The argument between these two ways of defining genuine representativeness is often played out on the streets of Bangkok,not in the legislature itself. In the past,the Yellow Shirts have managed to bring Bangkok to a halt,blockading its airport and forcing a change in government. The Red Shirts have often streamed on to Bangkoks streets,once leading (in 2010) to a death toll of almost a hundred and forcing an election. Currently,both sides are once again occupying their patches of the capital city,leading to a feeling that something will have to give especially now that Yingluck may have overplayed her cards and invited reservations among some Red Shirts,not about genuine representativeness,but about the centrality of Thaksin to their cause. Any which way,the current institutional compromise may not hold.
Nearer home,in Nepal,results of the elections to form another constituent assembly,after that constituted back in 2008 remained deadlocked on the form of government suitable for the country after abolition of the monarchy,have been a setback for the Maoists. Some of their leaders have cried fraud and hinted at obstructing the assembly. How Nepals older political parties manage diverse opinions in the assembly will now be crucial. The countrys success in holding the post-2006 peace may well depend on the accommodative nature of the legislature.
As we head towards the winter session of Parliament,the last potentially substantive one in the life of this frequently locked down Lok Sabha,what chances of crowdsourcing ideas on reviving conversation across the aisles,even if it is adversarial,even if it be something as essential as the orderly conduct of Question Hour?
The writer is a contributing editor for The Indian Express.