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Identity Crisis

By Jared Kavanagh

On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).

The theme for the 42nd contest was Daft Governmental setups.


From an article which appeared in the Boston Courant


As the Commonwealth extends another unenviable paralysis record, Paige Turner considers whether the last trump has sounded for the Continent.

On 3 July 2001, just past the turn of the millennium, the Commonwealth ticked over an infamous achievement: ten straight years without a peacetime government. Easily eclipsing the previous record of nine straight years without an official government – also held by the Commonwealth.

No prizes are on offer for guessing which country placed third, fourth or fifth on this particular leaderboard. In fact, to find any placeholder other than the Commonwealth, you would have needed to go a long way down the rankings. Only the humble effort of Ecuador, whose 589 days without a functioning government placed them at nineteenth, stopped the Commonwealth from claiming the entire top twenty.

Back in 2001, the world marvelled that the Franco-Polish-German-Italian-Lithuanian Commonwealth did not finally name a new leader until 17 December 2001, when Guy Verhofstadt was sworn in as Castellan.

Fast forward two decades, and that record has been shattered. Long-suffering Ecuador has been pushed to twentieth on the leaderboard. A series of caretaker governments have presided in Kraków for thirteen years, while the world marvels and the Commonwealth... simply exists.

The problem can be summarised in two words: liberum veto.

A literal translation of this Latin phrase is “by freedom I forbid.” A more cynical but representative translation would be “instant government paralysis.” By the power of the liberum veto, any duly elected member of the Sejm – or Senate, as it is usually rendered in English – can veto all legislation in the current parliamentary session simply by declaring “I forbid” in Latin or any of the six other official languages of the Commonwealth.

To a handful of holdouts, the liberum veto represents the best of the ancient tradition of liberty and consensus decision-making. A treasured legacy of the ancient days when the Commonwealth encompassed only Poland and Lithuania, a marker of democracy in an age when absolute monarchies ruled most of the Continent.

To a large majority of the Commonwealth’s populace, the liberum veto represents sheer bloody-minded insanity.

Unfortunately, removing the liberum veto would require unanimous approval from every member of the Sejm. Which presents something of a problem.

The present crisis has seen an endless series of would-be Castellans present themselves at the Ruby Room to tell His Serene Majesty John V Casimir that they can form a new government. Every one of those would-be leaders has been vetoed at their first session of the Sejm, often within the first five minutes.

Coalition governments have long been the norm in Commonwealth politics. Previous conventions labelled them with colours. Green, red and blue were straightforward. During the Nineties crisis, these coalitions become so unwieldy that multi-colour names were adopted – although these days only the failed Red-Green coalition is remembered, because of the wags who called it the Daltonists. Verhofstadt eventually took power with the Rainbow coalition, though that name did not last either.

Colour conventions are now abandoned. Formally each prospective coalition is named after its would-be leader. Informally, they are usually given unflattering nicknames that form bad puns of the failed leader’s name. English-language newspapers, for instance, referred to Angela Merkel’s brief attempted coalition as the Wrinkles.

As one anonymous interviewee said on the streets of Frankfurt, “Better to laugh at bad nicknames than cry at their incompetence.”

More serious business remains, of course. Decisions still need to be made. Some power has devolved to the various regional governments, or Estates as they are usually translated. Those governments, too, can be paralysed by veto, but usually they put together a workable coalition within two or three years of each election.

When it comes to matters of national policy, John V has become the de facto head of government. Nominally he has appointed a series of caretaker Castellans to keep the wheels of government turning. In practice, most of those carry out his wishes. Provided that he does nothing too controversial, it seems that the legislators of the Commonwealth are prepared to leave government to him while they carry on the serious business of negotiations.

The coronavirus crisis might have been expected to jolt the Sejm into some sort of political unity. Yet it seems that nothing short of Superglue can make the legislators stick together. His Serene Majesty took over the business of issuing “temporary” health orders, based on medical advice, while the only difference to the Sejm’s negotiations was that they switched to arguing with each other online rather than in person.

From an outsider’s perspective, therefore, it is hard to understand why the Commonwealth has not simply dissolved. Even if a new government can be formed, perhaps after twenty years or so, the paralysis will remain so long as any discontented Senator can simply nullify all legislation. Talk to Europeans on the street, though, and a more nuanced picture emerges.

It is, in fact, hard to find anyone on the streets willing to discuss the political deadlock. I usually received blank stares or mumbles, or if I was fortunate, some variation on the theme of “old news.” Europe’s political crisis is far more discussed among its neighbours than among its own citizens.

This is not to say that they approve of this situation. Far from it! “Life goes on,” one more than usually talkative European told me. “Talk to me about soccer or food or when this plague will be over. Don’t talk to me about the empty suits in Kraków. Everything which could be said, has been said.”

When asked how the Commonwealth could keep together with such deadlock, the answer was laughter. “Sure, we squabble with each other. The Italians hate the French, the French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles, the Poles hate the Italians, and the Lithuanians hate everyone equally. But as long as Kraków remains deadlocked, no-one can do anything to really hurt each other.”

Few other interviewees were so loquacious, but their sentiments were similar. Better the devil you know, seems to be the consensus.

When I searched for long enough, I eventually found two people who would admit to hoping that the Commonwealth dissolved. However, one of them also told me that the novel coronavirus was created in a Kraków laboratory to help the king seize power, and the other reported that an asteroid had crashed into Kraków last month, but the government hushed it up. Readers will perhaps forgive me for not taking their views as being representative of the broader European body politic.

Far from being the tottering edifice I imagined before leaving Boston, the Commonwealth is instead a large-scale experiment on whether a legislature is actually needed.


Jared Kavanagh is a writer of alternate history, speculative fiction and sometimes just plain weird stuff. He is the author of the Sidewise Nominated Lands of Red and Gold alternate history series, and editor of the Alternate Australias anthology. He has also had several short stories published in anthologies from Sea Lion Press and B Cubed Press.


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