This week in the United States of America, a former British colony on the North American continent, long-brewing political and social problems culminated in a messy speaker election in the lower chamber of the bicameral national parliament.
The Republican party, by far the more conservative of the two major parties in what effectively is a two-party political oligopoly, gained narrow majority in the chamber in November elections, but was unable to effectively execute on its new-found power. A small far-right splinter group within the party blocked the election of the speaker — a procedural position that has gradually become heavily politicized — demanding political favors in return for their votes. This resulted in four days of heated and often chaotic proceedings, at one point devolving into a brawl.
The Speaker of the House, as the post is officially called, has finally been elected on the fifteenth try, the largest number since before the country’s bloody civil war. Last time election of the speaker — which is largely a formality — required more than one ballot was in 1923.
To placate the hold-outs, the now-newly elected speaker had to first agree to a long list of concessions, potentially going as far as giving the far-right hardliner minority control over which legislative proposals are even put up for a vote. This raises the possibility of a government shut-down due to running out of funds later this year; government shut-downs have become more frequent recently in the heavily politically polarized North American nation. There are also concerns that the country might default on its debt, bringing more political and economic instability to the region.
The troubled vote comes exactly two years after a violent coup attempt, supported by then-President, who refused to accept defeat in his bid for re-election. Armed militia storming the building where the legislative branch of the country’s government deliberates — United States Capitol — tried to stop the formal certification of the election’s result. The crisis was enabled partially by an outdated electoral system that often relies heavily on norms and custom in place of strict regulations.
Members of both chambers of the legislative branch, as well as then-Vice President of the country, had to be evacuated from the building. The attack resulted in several deaths.
Certain right-wing political figures, aligned with the former President, who had voiced their strong support for the armed insurgency perpetrating the coup and defended the organization (designated as “terrorist” in some countries) involved in organizing it have now been sworn-in as elected members of the lower legislative chamber, House of Representatives. They formed the core of the splinter group, leader of which had been accused of being involved in child sex trafficking and prostitution of minors.
The former President, who strives to maintain a strongman persona, is named in a number of investigations and criminal cases, ranging from tax evasion to stealing classified documents to inciting the coup attempt. He had also drawn accusations of nepotism after having appointed his daughter and son-in-law to important positions in his administration, and was embroiled in scandals involving, among others, paying off a porn star over an alleged affair.
The oil-rich North American country is struggling with high rate of gun violence (among the 20 most heavily affected countries in the world, according to a 2016 ranking), high cost of and difficult access to healthcare, lowest adult literacy rate in the region, and one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. These issues disproportionately affect communities of people of color, in no small part due to country’s economy having relied heavily on slavery in the past.
This post is inspired by Joshua Keating’s “If It Happened There” column in Slate, which I found to be as hilarious as it is illuminating. I can only wish someone would continue this kind of lighthearted yet much-needed work.