The World’s Most Unruly Parliaments
The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Tuesday to admonish Rep. Joe Wilson for yelling "You lie!" during President Obama's recent address to Congress. But in some parts of the world, outbursts like Wilson's would barely raise an eyebrow.
Source of tension: Korean democracy is a full-contact sport in which debates between the dominant Grand National Party (GNP) and its opponents over foreign policy and media freedom are frequently resolved with fists … or whatever heavy object is in the room.
Low points: South Korea’s first internationally noticed punch-up occurred in 2004 over the impeachment of then President Roh Moo-hyun. MPs loyal to Roh attempted to block what they saw as a coup by refusing to leave the assembly’s podium. Scuffles broke out as security tried to remove the unruly delegates, who began throwing punches and tossing furniture. (Meanwhile, an unidentified man crashed a car into the outside of the building.) The offending MPs later got down on their knees to apologize to the nation.
But the Roh impeachment battle was just a prelude to the December 2008 war over a controversial free trade agreement with the United States. After the GNP submitted the bill to a parliamentary committee on trade, attempting to rush it through before Barack Obama took office, opposition MPs attempted to break into the locked committee room with sledgehammers and an electric saw. The terrified lawmakers inside the room barricaded the door with furniture and fought the intruders with fire extinguishers. TV cameras broadcast the images, including one of a MP bleeding profusely from the face, to viewers around the world. A compromise was reached, but only after the opposition occupied the assembly building for 12 days.
The incident apparently didn’t satisfy the blood lust of Korean lawmakers, though. A debate over media privatization in July devolved into an all-out fistfight.
Source of tension: South Korea might be the current world leader in parliamentary brawling, but the all-time champion is probably Taiwan, which has a world-renowned tradition of legislative violence dating back to the late 1980s. Parliamentary riots, which were usually instigated by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) when its main rival, the nationalist Kuomintang, won’t budge on a contentious issue, have been a common occurrence for years. These fights are usually pre-planned for maximum media coverage and have actually been used by the DPP as a sort of debating tactic for much of its history.
Low points: The best Taiwanese parliamentary fights can involve up to 50 people throwing punches, shoes, water, food, and microphones over issues ranging from election procedure to ties with mainland China. In one infamous incident, an MP was suspended for six months after punching a female colleague in the face. In May 2005, a Kuomintang parliamentarian sponsored a motion on a bill about transport links with the mainland only to have it snatched out of her hand and stuffed in her mouth. A few months later a Kuomintang legislator was hospitalized and given more than 100 stitches on his face after three DPP rivals forced him to the floor and beat him with plastic sticks. At one point, a minister proposed that legislators be made to take a breathalyzer test before entering debate.
The brawls have made Taiwan’s parliament a bit of a laughingstock in Asia, and the mainland Chinese media has particularly relished reporting on them. After a crushing election defeat in 2008, the DPP formally renounced the practice of parliamentary brawling, citing the damage done to Taiwan’s image.
Source of tension: Since the 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukraine’s Supreme Rada has gotten particularly ugly as members of the ruling Orange Coalition have scrapped with their pro-Russian rivals.
Low points: Parliamentary disruptions were hardly uncommon in the Rada before 2004, but things have gotten particularly ugly in recent years. After the pro-Russian Party of the Regions won a parliamentary election in 2006, pro-Orange parliamentarians attempted to prevent their leader, Viktor Yanukovych, from being elected prime minister by blasting sirens and throwing eggs. Predictably, punches were thrown and one pro-government legislator was reportedly picked up and thrown across the room by a rival.
Other ugly moments include a shoving match involving dozens of lawmakers during a debate on NATO membership in 2008, only a few months after the interior minister slapped the mayor of Kiev in the face and kicked him in the groin during a government agency meeting (the minister said the mayor deserved the “manly slap”). The same minister was suspended this year after a drunken brawl with security guards at Frankfurt Airport.
Source of tension: While fistfights are rare in the British Parliament, question time has provided some classic moments of rudeness over the years as backbenchers attempt to score points against the prime minister and ruling party.
Low points: Some prime ministers, Tony Blair for instance, relish the chance to go up against the opposition. Others, like current Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has been described to his face as transitioning “from Stalin to Mr. Bean,” absolutely despise it. Jeering and booing are common reactions from the back bench, as are meticulously crafted put-downs. It takes quite a bit to actually be asked to withdraw a remark. One MP was formally rebuked for describing a colleague as “a second-rate Ms. Marple.”
In the past week, Joe Wilson’s outburst has frequently been compared to British parliamentary behavior, though ironically, calling someone a liar in parliament is usually frowned upon. (Winston Churchill coined the euphemism “terminological inexactitude” to get around this taboo.) Wilson would probably have been asked to withdraw his remark if he had said it during Prime Minister’s Questions, though likening Margaret Thatcher to a “sex-starved boa constrictor,” as Labour MP Tony Banks once did, is apparently fine.
Source of tension: The Australian Parliament inherited Britain’s tradition of “Prime Minister’s Questions” and cutting parliamentary debate style, but in many ways has even less decorum.
Low points: The colorful insult is something of an art in Australian politics and the undisputed master was former Prime Minister Paul Keating, who famously referred to opponents as “scumbags,” “rabble,” “foul-mouth pugs,” “intellectual hobos,” and “brain-damaged” during debates.
Politicians are occasionally ejected from question time for insults like “get back under your rock” and “you are a grub,” but the tradition lives on with leaders like former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer who, in 2007, described Labour Party leader and now Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as mealy-mouthed, duplicitous, and “a boy in a bubble.”
Ducking question time doesn’t help much either. When Rudd tried to avoid the ritual in order to visit a flood-damaged town this February, opposition parliamentarians brought a cardboard cut-out of him into parliament to hurl abuse at.
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy Twitter: @joshuakeating