The threat of Societal Polarization

Dr. Nadeem Jan

The recent flood calamity due to the undue share of global climate disruptions has affected the whole country one way or the other. The loss of precious human lives, properties, agriculture, infrastructure and myriads of ills that it has brought is a national tragedy.

The resilient and rapid response exhibited by the Government, Pak Army and national, and international organizations is nonetheless inspiring.

Apart from that natural calamity, we are being engulfed by an equally dangerous threat, i.e. mushrooming polarization at high velocity The “Polarization Syndrome” has badly affected our value-laden echo system and the entire social and political fabric.

It’s a matter of fact that polarization 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 is not just Pakistan’s dilemma but rather a global one.

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 show gross similarity.

Thomas Carothers is co-director of Carnegie’s Democracy Conflict and Governance Program. He mentioned in a research article that particularly striking is just how decisive polarizing leaders often are. Figures like US Ex-president Donald Trump, Narendra Modi in India, and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, have relentlessly inflamed basic divisions and entrenched them throughout the society.

They’ve aggravated tensions not only by demonizing opponents and curtailing democratic processes but also by pushing for radical change, like rejecting the election outcome, targeting institutions, and protesting 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 politically ignorant the people, the wilder the fire.

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.

Severe polarization historically damages all institutions essential to nation-building.

It routinely undermines the independence of the judiciary, as politicians attack the courts especially when on the receiving end. It can reduce the legislatures to a rubberstamp function.

Other key institutions like the military, beurocracy, media and even civil society receive a similar fate. Most importantly, polarization shatters informal but crucial norms of tolerance and moderation, – the backbone of national cohesion-. Such events generate a vicious cycle of polarization.

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

Thomas’s research informs that in Turkey eight out of ten people would not want their daughter to marry the men of the other party.

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’s polarization is the unique alignment of anti-imperialism, anti-establishment, and pro-religious Mantras; the famous “iron triangle”. This has buyers across the society at least for one if not all three.

The situation got so grave that Pakistan’s famous Unity at the time of the crisis- Recent Floods Calamity- succumbed to political division.

Once a society is allowed to be 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.

It 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.

1st, 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.

2nd, 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.

3rd, 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.

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.

4th, the creation and digestion of an equally appealing counter-narrative. This requires the same charisma, and demagogue leadership, that can build on the popular tide wave and awaken the sedated minds.

Bringing the undisciplined Social Media under a defined regulatory mechanism would support combating the pervasive power of polarization. The potential for destructive divisions exists in 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.

Societies must have to rise to this challenge in an inclusive, enlightened, and pragmatic manner if they are to swim successfully against the swelling threat of polarization.

In the given circumstances in Pakistan, an organic and inclusive negotiated reconciliation mechanism steered through acceptable mediators seems a “sine qua non” for forging national unity.

Its success is largely dependent upon the “will” to shred the web of parochial agenda and self-serving political interests.

The author is an internationally recognised public policy & health strategist, who has had an illustrious career with the UN, USAID, The World Bank and various Governments.

He tweets at @DrNadeemjan



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