Deep divides

16 Dec 2019


The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

PARTY. Policy. Leader. The UK election has raised interesting questions about what drives voters. Is it political parties, to which many have a long-standing allegiance? Is it policies and the nitty-gritty of manifestos? Or does it all come down to the charisma and perceived trustworthiness of a leader? And why should we in Pakistan care?

Given that the election result was defined more by Labour’s losses than the Conser­vatives’ gains, this is a question that the party must ask. But answers won’t come easily. Labour failed on all fronts. The party’s voter base shunned loyalty, either frustrated by the party’s muddled Brexit stance or alienated by its left-wing Momentum sub-group.

The party’s attempt to make the election about austerity policies — and its election promises — was perceived as overreaching and ill-considered. And the party’s divisive leader Jeremy Corbyn proved as unpopular as feared, going into the election with a favourable rating by only 23 per cent of voters, and cited by most former Labour loyalists as the reason they would stay away from the polls.

The Conservatives’ big win provides little clarity either. The party has been mired in an identity crisis, hijacked by the Eurosceptic fringe European Research Group, which takes the hardest line on Brexit. Many traditional Conservative politicians have recently left the party, deriding its current politics as ugly, unethical and divisive. A former Conservative prime minister, John Major, even publicly warned against voting for Boris Johnson.

This is a politics that hates analysis and nuance.

On policies, the Tories only drew attention for how little their manifesto offered (indeed, it contained pledges on actions the party would not take). And Johnson’s leadership was only a touch less controversial than that of Corbyn. He has been branded a liar and a racist. And as he enters Downing Street with a majority, the UK is wondering which incarnation of the man they will get: the liberal London mayor who supported immigration or the hard-line Brexiteer who slapped a lie about public spending on the side of a bus to fuel national divisions?

So, it seems, none among party, policy or leader is privileged. What voters seem to want is the promise of a simple solution to their complex problems, preferably one that can be summed up in three words or less: Get Brexit Done. Lock Her Up. Surgical Strikes. Naya Pakistan.

This has terrifying implications for democratic politics globally, which have been recast as a race to the bottom in terms of simplicity of message (a severe case, as the joke goes, of electile dysfunction). It is a far cry from the spirit of democracy, which privileges inclusive representation and rigorous debate at a structural level in order to inform state priorities.

This is a politics that requires an us-versus-them, winners-or-losers, in-or-out mentality that is stoking the deep social divides we see emerging around the world. This is a politics that hates analysis, nuance, grey areas and multifaceted or multilateral solutions. In an effort to be heard, reactionary, socially liberal politics is becoming increasingly reductivist as well: Extinction Rebellion. Azaadi. Revolution.

It is easy to think that none of this matters for Pakistan. After all, for decades, the default response would be that Pakistanis vote for parties (irrespective of their policies or leadership) strongly along ethno-political lines with an eye to accessing patronage. Our political parties increasingly have policy-driven identities shaped by approaches to issues such as social welfare, foreign policy, trade or minorities. But this remains secondary, as shifts or contradictions in policy (or the failure to implement any) has had minimal impact on voting patterns.

However, this is changing, thanks to rural-urban migration, a growing middle class, and increased political engagement fuelled by the media and global trends. Recent polls and political showdowns have shown our politicians to be in the same race for the bottom: we see it in the belittling of the opposition, the demonisation of dissenters and minorities, the preference for conspiracy over fact. Non-electoral distortions in the past election have made it difficult to determine the extent to which Pakistanis, too, are weighing parties, policies, and leaders.

Sadly, in Pakistan, we may never understand which driver is the most compelling. In an ideal scenario, voters should triangulate their decision-making. But this cannot happen in isolation. It requires voters to be educated, for research into socioeconomic issues to be produced by credible sources and widely disseminated, for a free press to hold those implementing policies to account, for courts to step up when gaps are identified. Our public institutions do not seem up for the task. And we cannot take comfort in the fact that the democratic ecosystem is eroding everywhere. At least others had their chance.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, December 16th, 2019