Talking across the aisles

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, it's called the nuclear option.

Republicans are howling in rage, telling Democrats just what may be round the corner should Obama's 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 minority's 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.

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