From Polarisation to reconciliation | By Dr Nadeem Jan


From Polarisation to reconciliation

POLARISATION is shaking societies across the world, the political divisions intensifying locally, nationally and globally to varying degrees.

Polarization has the potential to tear the fabric of fragile democracies, from Brazil and India to Poland and Turkey to Pakistan.

It isn’t just a Pakistan dilemma but rather a global one.Why has polarization come to a boiling point in so many countries in recent years?

Are there anysimilarities in the patterns of polarization across different countries? Most importantly, once societies have become deeply polarized, what can they do to start healing their divisions?

Countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Poland, Turkey, and the United States had to face this one way or the other, for the unwanted outcomes though.

The degree of similarity that could be found across these countries is startling, even in democracies as different as Pakistan, Colombia, Kenya, and Poland, many of the roots, patterns, and drivers of polarization showed gross similarity.

Thomas Carothers is co-director of Carnegie’s DemocracyConflict and Governance Program. He mentions that particularly striking is just how decisive polarising leaders often are.

Figures like Ex-US president Donald Trump, Narendra Modi in India, and Jaros³aw Kaczyñski in Poland, have relentlessly inflamed basic divisions and entrenched them throughout the society.

They’ve aggravated tensions not only by demonising opponents and curtailing democratic processes but also by pushing for radical change, like rejecting the election outcome and protests for packing up the government.

There is significant media hype around these personalities primarily due to the technologically fuelled utilization of the media industry and the handy social media.

Any amount of polarization needs the combustible woods which in most cases are the gullible populace, the more the political ignorance the wilder the fire.

The Thomas’s research work informs that besides many other drivers of polarization the empowering of an urban middle-class educated lot added to the menace.

One might expect, for instance, that a growing economy would ease polarization. Yet the research found that in some places, such as India, it made things worse.

Indeed, the growth of India’s middle class has led to rising support for polarizing Hindu nationalist narratives.

The author adds that the rampant patronage and corruptionleave voters disgusted with the traditional parties and thatfuels the rise of divisive populist figures, like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Severe polarization historically damages all institutions essential to democracy. It routinely undermines the independence of the judiciary, as politicians attack the courts as biased especially when on the receiving end.

It can reduce the legislaturesto a rubberstamp function.Most importantly, polarization shatters informal but crucial norms of tolerance and moderation, – the backbone of national cohesion-.

These consequences generate a vicious cycle of more polarization.Attacks on the judiciary, for example, only diminish its capacity to arbitrate conflict and heighten distrust between the people and the institution.

Other key institutions like the military, democracy, media and even civil society receive a similar fate.

Polarizationreverberates throughout society as a whole, poisoning everyday interactions and relationships even at the household level.

Thomas’s research informs that in Turkey almost eight out of ten people there would not want their daughter to marry someone who votes for the party they most dislike.

Nearly three-quarters would not even want to do business with such a person. Such Partisan conflict takes a heavy toll on civil society, often leading to the demonization of activists and human rights defenders.

More seriously still, divisions can contribute to a spike in hate crimes and political violence: India, Poland, and the United States have witnessed such increases in recent years.

A distinctive feature of Pakistan polarization is the unique alignment of anti-imperialism, anti-establishment, and pro-religiousnarratives; the famous “iron triangle”.

This has buyers across the society at least for one if not all three. Once a society becomes deeply divided, it is very difficult to heal. Polarization tends to escalate at a dizzyingly fast pace, often in the span of just a few years or less.

Polarization then entrenches itself and becomes self-perpetuating. Polarizing actions and reactions feed on each other, dragging countries into a downward spiral of anger, hatred and division.

Despite these challenges, there are different types of remedial actions, ranging from dialogue efforts and media reforms to national/ international action.

First, several promising efforts to limit polarization have focused on institutional reforms, such as decentralizing political power or changing electoral rules, and going for inclusive setups..

Kenya, for instance, after massive election riots, adopted a new constitution in 2010 that sought to ease ferocious competition for national office by giving regional officials greater autonomy and control over state resources.

Other efforts involve legal or judicial action to limit polarization. In India, for example, the Supreme Court has spoken out in defence of democratic institutions and demanded greater accountability for hate crimes and political violence.

Sane political leadership can play a crucial role in de-escalating partisan divides. In Ecuador, President Lenin Moreno rejected the polarizing tactics of his predecessor, even though the two come from the same political party.

And in Turkey, opposition parties have achieved modest success by uniting to form a coalition: their candidate for mayor of Istanbul won a resounding victory in 2019 with a campaign that emphasized overcoming divisions.

Another antidote to the plight is the creation and digestion of an equally appealing counter-narrative.

This requires the same charisma, demagogue leadership, who can build on the popular tide wave and hypnotise the masses.

An organic negotiated reconciliation mechanism mayn’t serve all parties the same results yet it is a “sine qua non” for forging national unity.

No doubt the potential for destructive divisions exists in almost all societies, even the ones that seem relatively homogeneous.

It’s the character of national polity and political matrix that determine the magnitude and impact of polarization.

It may have a colossal impact in one part while quite benign in the other and in this mix lies the embers of hope.

Democracieswill need to rise to this challenge in an inclusive, unifiedand logical manner if they are to swim successfully against the swellingthreat of polarization.

—The writer is public policy & health strategist, had an illustrious career with the UN, USAID, Bill Gates foundation, World Bank and various governments organisations.


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