Parliamentary Funk

The United States isn't the only country whose legislature just doesn't work.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

The debt-ceiling negotiations going on in Washington right now have not, to put it mildly, cast the collected membership of the U.S. Congress in the most flattering possible light. In theory, members of Congress are meant to serve as enlightened representatives of their local districts, virtuous stewards of the common good. But the last several weeks have offered instead a portrait of shallow partisans willing to risk global economic catastrophe for the sake of indulging their personal vanity and furthering their own agendas, and a legislature unable to accomplish even the most basic of tasks.

Sadly, the United States is not the only country suffering from its lawmakers in this fashion. Legislative gridlock is commonplace — as are the partisanship and vanity at its root — in governments around the world. At least the United States can blame the creakiness of its institutions on the fact that they were designed some 200 years ago: Most other countries don’t have nearly such a convenient excuse — and, yet, they act just as shamelessly.


Think America’s divided government is a hassle? Try not having a government at all. Belgium has lacked a functioning parliamentary majority for more than a year, ever since its last national election on June 13, 2010. Negotiations to form a new majority have broken down eight times over the past 400 days, as the country earned the dubious distinction of entering the Guinness World Records for the longest period of time without a government. The major Belgian parties aren’t just talking past one another; they don’t even share the same native language — and that’s a big part of the problem. Belgium’s Flemish-speaking region wants to secure more financial autonomy, the better to enjoy the rewards of its economic success, but the country’s French-speaking territories, dependent as they are on Flemish tax receipts to maintain their welfare provisions, have refused.

In the absence of any majority in Parliament, previous Prime Minister Yves Leterme has continued to preside over cabinet meetings, though proposals for ambitious legislation have been put on hold indefinitely. That’s not to say, however, that Belgians necessarily notice any disruption in their daily lives. Many state functions, from education to welfare, are already administered at the regional, rather than the federal, level. Leterme’s caretaker government, meanwhile, did succeed in serving its pre-scheduled six-month stint as president of the European Council in 2010. And in 2011, Belgium managed to send four fighter jets and 150 military personnel to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya.

Apparently, the reason that Parliament has yet to call for a new election is for fear that the international community (and bond markets) will judge the country incapable of solving its problems (though one would have thought that train had long ago left the station). Presiding over the stalemate, and tirelessly goading all parties to reach a final resolution, is the lonely King Albert II — among the few symbols of national identity, apart from frites, that enjoys broad recognition throughout the country.



With political and sectarian violence still common throughout their country, Iraqi parliamentarians could perhaps be forgiven some measure of cynicism about the democratic process. Still, the zero-sum strategies of sectarian parties have managed repeatedly to nearly push the country’s entire parliamentary system off the brink, and calls for election boycotts by Sunni parties have been common in Iraq’s short democratic history. Sunni threats to boycott the 2005 parliamentary elections proved especially detrimental to the political atmosphere, fanning the flames of the ongoing low-level sectarian civil war.

Sunni parties called for boycotts again in 2010, after Shiite parties pushed to disqualify hundreds of Sunni candidates because of their alleged affiliations with the Baath Party. With sectarian tensions primed by that show of Shiite power, the parliamentary election on March 7, 2010, produced a stalemate. After nine months of threats and aggrieved posturing — and cajoling interventions by the United States — the legislative body finally confirmed a new government with incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at its head in December 2010.

Little significant legislation has passed since then, though the parliament did agree this month to formally blame the United States for continuing violence along Iraq’s borders. But Iraq has yet to pass an oil revenue-sharing law, something that could tamp down major sectarian strife. The parliament also has yet to address the status of the semiautonomous Kurdistan region, a subject of dispute that may also eventually spark a civil war.



If Japan’s parliament has seemed slow in responding to the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, that’s partly by design. Although the national parliament is meant in theory to serve as the country’s highest lawmaking body, in reality it’s subordinate to a branch of government largely invisible to the public: the elite civil service, made up of senior ministry bureaucrats who basically write policy before it’s perfunctorily debated and rubber-stamped into law by parliament.

Conditioned in deference, the parliament has little redress apart from withdrawing its formal support of the government and forcing the selection of a new prime minister or a new round of elections. Unsurprisingly, Japan has had five prime ministers in the past five years, but little in the way of major legislation, despite the fact that a major debt crisis seems to be looming on the horizon, with gross government debt soaring to over 200 percent of GDP this year.

In the case of the meltdown of Fukushima’s nuclear reactors this year, the toothlessness of Japan’s parliament was starkly exposed, as lawmakers were unable to compel bureaucrats in the government or in the Tepco power utility to give truthful testimony about the extent of damage to the reactors and the threat of exposure to dangerous radioactivity.



The Afghan parliament is among the few structural checks on the power of President Hamid Karzai, but that’s not to say it’s a particularly effective one: Its independence has repeatedly come under attack by Karzai and his allies.

In June, Karzai appointed a tribunal to re-examine the results from the most recent parliamentary elections. One week later, the court revoked 62 seats, 25 percent of the number awarded the previous September. Members of parliament made a symbolic show of protest by slapping their desks in unison, but most held their tongues for fear of earning Karzai’s ill favor. One Karzai ally appointed to a newly open seat who did feel compelled to refute allegations that the tribunal acted unjustly compared the process to the U.S. Supreme Court’s intervention in the disputed 2000 presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Karzai’s own belief that he needn’t defend the legality of the tribunal process signals a waning national confidence in the parliament. That may make it harder for Kabul and Washington to eventually reach a political settlement to end the ongoing war, as it might confirm the Taliban’s suspicions that the only way to effectively oppose Karzai is through military, rather than peaceful, means.

Eric Kanalstein/Getty Images


With a system designed to produce divided government — the executive and legislative branches are elected independently of one another — Taiwan’s gridlocked status quo may sound familiar to Americans. But those original sins are exacerbated by the hyperpartisan politics of this relatively new democracy. The main “blue” and “green” party coalitions don’t just oppose one another — they despise each other. Indeed, they have a greater tradition of engaging in fistfights in the halls of government than cooperating on policy.

Taiwan’s eight years of divided government during the previous decade produced an utter and acrimonious political stalemate. At the time of the Asian financial crisis in 2000, the Taiwanese government was paralyzed and generally acknowledged to have acquitted itself poorly in its attempts at crisis management. As much of the region was working furiously to maintain good standing with the international bond markets, Taiwan’s parliament was busy trying to impeach President Chen Shui-Bian because of a disagreement over energy policy.

Taipei currently has both branches of government under the control of a single party, but polls show that this may change in the parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2012.


Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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