For almost a decade, political polarisation has been taking the shape of a pandemic. Very few countries have managed to stop this virus from spreading in their region. Its impact has been most severe in countries such as the United States of America, Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India and Pakistan. Kenya and Indonesia too can be slotted in the list of regions facing unprecedented political polarisation.
Polarisation is an outcome of diversity. Whereas pluralism is often treated as a positive and progressive outcome of diversity, polarisation is its negative outcome. Pluralism is about a democratic arrangement in which a variety of ideas and political outfits interact and agree to coexist for a common or larger cause.
Polarisation, on the other hand, sees ideas and outfits refusing to interact in a democratic manner, and dogmatically hold their individual positions. Dialogues are replaced with shouting matches, criticism mutates and manifests itself as vindictive rhetoric and action, and the ploy of demonising foes becomes a common device to reduce the status of an opposing idea or party.
Political polarisation is nothing new in societies. But according to most political scientists, it has never been as widespread as it is today. In the book Democracies Divided, its editors T. Carothers and A. O’Donahue describe the present-day political polarisation as a ‘global illness’. According to Carothers, many of the roots, patterns, and drivers of polarisation in most countries are the same. This means that the dynamics and malaise of contemporary political polarisation is similar in nature across societies that are otherwise rather distinct from one another.
Populist politicians often feed on and further exacerbate existing societal divisions, hoping that their transgressive behaviour will bolster their chances of gaining and holding on to power
One of the most prominent commonalities in this respect has been the presence of populist politics in these countries. Populist politics that gradually began to engulf various countries in the last 15 years or so, peaking in the 2010s, has played a major role in intensifying political polarisation. This is because populists actually seek to be divisive and polarising figures. This requires them to initiate transgressive rhetoric and acts, or words and behaviour that challenge established norms.
The established norms are rejected by them as being tools of the ‘elite’ to ‘repress the common people’. In this sense, populism is postmodernism gone mad, even though postmodernists are likely to romanticise the transgressions as being the ‘bold’ crossings of the Rubicon. The transgressions in this respect are not really about challenging power as such. They have more to do with causing divisions and a sense of uncertainty in society that can create an opening through which the populists can sneak in to power and/or if they are already in power, to retain it, or return to power.
Examples of transgressive acts in this context include the attack on the Capitol Building by Donald Trump supporters, attack on military installations by pro-Imran Khan mobs in Pakistan, the turning of Hagia Sophia into a mosque by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, government-sanctioned violence against Muslims in India, a total ban on abortion by the Jarosław Kaczyñsk government in Poland, etc.
Such acts are often explained by populists as being ‘revolutionary’ because, apparently, they challenge ‘liberal’ and ‘elitist’ concepts of morality, sanity and rationality. But the acts themselves are largely performances, choreographed to sustain a populist’s iconoclastic image. This also requires a polarised polity from which a large, exclusivist section can be carved that is willing to continuously defend and even glorify transgressive behaviour.
Another school of thought posits that the global rise of political polarisation is related to the rise in economic inequalities. According to the late political economist Alberto Alesina, and political scientist Nolan McArty, the cycle of poverty and rising income inequality constitute an important cause of political polarisation. But the studies of various countries facing severe political polarisation compiled by Carothers and O’Donahue demonstrate that economic growth can actually make political polarisation even worse.
For example, according to the Indian author Niranjan Sahoo, the growth of India’s middle-class has led to rising support for the polarising Hindu nationalist narratives. The same can be said about the sustained electoral strength of Turkey’s populist leader Erdoğan, whose first three governments oversaw rapid economic growth in Turkey and the expansion of the middle-classes — despite (or even because of) him becoming increasingly divisive.
To Carothers, once entrenched, polarisation becomes self-perpetuating. Polarising actions and reactions feed on each other, dragging countries into a downward spiral of anger and division. He sees it as a difficult problem to resolve but one which can be addressed through constitutional reforms, rational legislation and the creation of alliances of parties opposed to populist politics.
Indeed, it is a difficult problem to solve. In Pakistan, an alliance of established parties came together to challenge the government of the populist and extremely divisive Imran Khan. The idea was to oust him through an act of parliament and roll back his style of politics. In April 2022, the alliance succeeded in ousting him, but found itself ruling a country whose economy was spiralling out of control, and whose polity had been thoroughly polarised by Imran and his erstwhile abettors in the military establishment (ME) and in large sections of the media.
Even a year after his ouster, there was still enough polarisation in the society for Imran to derive fresh energy from and remain in the field. But it wasn’t any meaningful reform that finally began to reduce his populist stature and support. It was the complete divorce between him and the ME, and a transgressive act (against the ME) that has forced him into a corner.
The question is: will this end the kind of populist politics that he introduced in Pakistan? Not yet. But one can posit that the large segment that he created to participate in his transgressions has received a major blow. A blow which, ironically, Imran is now bemoaning as ‘fascism’.
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 28th, 2023