Pakistan’s angry political culture

Published January 4, 2021
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

THE political culture of a country always evolves. But not necessarily in a positive direction. As elsewhere in the world, politics in Pakistan has long had unseemly dimensions. Political leaders have often acted from a zero-sum view of political competition and were far from respectful of their opponents.

However, the political culture in the country today is a departure from the past in many respects. Even if some features were present earlier, they were not as dominant as they are now. Today both the language used by political leaders and their conduct have fostered an environment that is permeated by such extreme positions and incendiary rhetoric as to render any meaningful political conversation impossible. Rarely has the public discourse sunk to the low level that it has now. True that past political behaviour also exhibited some of these traits. But it is their pronounced nature and the angry environment that politicians are playing off and reinforcing as well as using multiple media platforms for aggressive messaging that distinguishes the present.

Four overlapping aspects of the ‘new’ political culture stand out: the language of politics has taken on a form and tone that is excessively harsh; the accent by politicians is on demonising opponents rather than articulating their own positions; the political middle ground is being steadily eliminated; and the ethic of war has been injected into politics by an attitude that sees opponents as enemies to be eliminated rather than competed with.

The impact of the confluence of these factors has been to create a toxic political environment that is sharply polarised and dominated by invective, not argument. Insults are routinely hurled by government and opposition figures against each other. Polemics by both sides have assumed an intensely personal nature, involving character attacks. Extreme partisanship has also made the political centre-ground disappear with little effort directed at bridging differences.

This has debased the political discourse, diminished the middle ground and eroded public trust in leaders.

Political leaders spend more time vilifying the other than conveying what they stand for and how they propose to address the country’s challenges. Those in power seem to equate government performance with humiliating rivals while opposition leaders return the compliment by using equally offensive language. This has become habit forming. The result is that an unedifying new normal has been established.

A number of factors might help to explain what has contributed to this new normal in Pakistan’s political culture. First and foremost, political parties no longer seem to represent any set of ideas or have coherent programmes — except as platitudes. The lack of distinct party platforms has in fact fostered a phase of issueless politics and personalised power struggles. There is no debate on ideas or policy alternatives. This makes the resort to shallow and provocative rhetoric an easy option and becomes the political weapon of choice.

It can be argued that the rise of a new political force, PTI, has also contributed to a more combative political culture by leaders who used language and engaged in conduct that upended traditional political norms. This became its way of challenging the political status quo, which it had no ability to do in any substantive sense. The point is that once established norms are discarded, that infects the whole body politic and contagion spreads across all parties who adopt the same language and behaviour. This is what seems to have happened.

Other factors are also important in understanding this change in political culture. The proliferation of the broadcast and social media has in recent years made numerous information platforms available to leaders and their followers to communicate and direct polemics against opponents. The era of the print media (when TV was a government monopoly) imposed sharp limits on what was fit to print and thus inhibited most vitriol from being uttered and published. By its very nature the independent broadcast media did away with these constraints and encouraged a no holds barred discourse. Talk shows provided adversarial settings, accentuated polarised debate and preferred heat over light in exchanges between public representatives.

The explosion of social media exacerbated this trend as intemperate language could be used without consequence or retribution. It made it easier for political leaders and activists to say what they wanted, with no check on the propriety or veracity of their assertions.

Another factor that might explain the changing political culture is rising anger in society. This has been the consequence, over time, of rising but dashed public expectations and frustration with the inability of successive governments to meet their demands and aspirations. In confronting this growing anger leaders and parties have increasingly struck a severe tone to channel this public sentiment while strengthening it further. At times it seemed as if political leaders by speaking in harsher tones saw this as their principal way of assuaging an angry public.

What then are the consequences of this kind of change in the country’s political culture? For a start it has debased the public discourse and detracted from meaningful or informed discussion of the country’s challenges, much less generated solutions to its problems. If most of the political conversation consists of invective, diatribes and allegations of malfeasance and venality against one another it denudes the political system of the ability to conduct reasoned debate on issues. Most significantly, it has shrunk the space for compromise, which is so essential to build consensus to make the democratic system work smoothly and effectively.

A polarised environment marked by constant exchange of tough rhetoric is hardly conducive to evolving consensus on key national issues. It has also sucked oxygen from the government to engage in a sustained manner in serious, policy-focused activity. This distraction and the lack of political consensus have ended up making governance more difficult.

But it also risks undermining the democratic system by generating public cynicism about constantly squabbling leaders and their immoderate conduct. This not only erodes public trust but can also mire the country’s institutions in controversy as they become the centre of attack by politicians themselves. Moreover, if political institutions are rendered dysfunctional by political leaders’ own actions this can end up delegitimising them. The big loser in all of this will inevitably be Pakistan’s fragile democracy.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, January 4th, 2021

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