SMOKERS’ CORNER: PERNICIOUS POLARISATION

Published April 21, 2024
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Currently, one of the most frequently used words in political discourses is the term ‘polarisation’. Recent studies demonstrate that a majority of countries have been suffering deep political polarisation. But political polarisation is nothing new.

A 2021 study published by Sweden’s V-Dem Institute explored the degrees of political polarisation in 202 countries. The study had to go as far back as 1950 to fully determine the roots of the current status of political polarisation in various countries. 

According to the study, in the last 70 years, many countries have faced waves of severe political polarisation. Many such waves emerged and then receded. However, in countries where polarisation continued to simmer, it gradually mutated to become ‘pernicious polarisation.’ 

Pernicious polarisation is one of the most chronic forms of polarisation. It is often the outcome of unaddressed political and social tensions in a society. These can lead to polarisation, which is largely manageable but, if not properly managed, it can then become pernicious. 

In the 2019 book Democracies Divided, Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue mention the following countries that are currently facing pernicious polarisation: United States, India, Turkey, Venezuela, Egypt, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Poland and Kenya.

The V-Dem Institute study too mentions these but also includes Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ecuador, Colombia, Georgia and Mexico. According to another study by the V-Dem Institute, ‘toxic polarisation’ is now present in 32 countries, compared to just five in 2011. 

In countries like Pakistan, where political polarisation continues to simmer and is not addressed, it can gradually mutate to become ‘pernicious polarisation.’ Can it ever be reduced?

When various distinct political and social cleavages merge into becoming two consolidated blocs, the focus on addressing cleavages individually and according to merit dissolves, because the blocs become like tribes that begin to identify with the political and social identity of their bloc. Each bloc is made up of various economic, racial, ethnic, religious and sectarian groups, but they become strictly tied to the ‘ideology’ of their bloc. 

The ‘ideology’ in this context is not really a set of any proper economic, social and political programmes as such. It is more of a belief in which one bloc thinks it is righteous, compared to the other bloc that is viewed as being unrighteous. This belief continues to harden and generate increasing mistrust and animosity between the blocs.

The space for dialogue and discourse between the two continues to shrink. Society gets split in the middle between two sets of beliefs, with no desire for any kind of reconciliation. Both want the complete elimination of the ‘other’. It doesn’t matter if this is achieved through an election, a dictatorship, or a ‘hybrid’ system. It also doesn’t matter if, in this context, stark exhibitions of contradictions also come into play.

For example, in Pakistan, which has been facing pernicious polarisation as well, if one bloc begins to support the renewal of economic ties with India, the other bloc starts to accuse it of “betraying the Kashmir cause”.

When the accusing bloc (after believing that the other bloc has been politically weakened) does an about-turn and starts to support ties with India, the bloc that had previously supported this now begins to accuse the other bloc of betraying the Kashmir cause. Achieving any kind of a consensus becomes almost impossible in societies split by pernicious polarisation.  

Almost every society has had at least some form of ethnic, religious, racial and sectarian tensions. However, from the 1960s, most of these were somewhat overcome with varying degrees of success. Political tensions and differences were largely viewed as being ‘natural’ and capable of being resolved through pluralism and nationalism. But pernicious polarisation cuts deeper. It can also seep into purely social settings. 

According to a 2020 report published by the Institute of Family Studies, marriages between supporters of the two major parties in the US have been rapidly decreasing. Today, a Democratic Party supporter is far less likely to tie the knot with a supporter of the Republican Party, and vice versa. 

In Pakistan, there have been incidents in which young men and women who support the bloc driven by the narratives of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and Khan’s cult of personality have stopped talking to their parents and colleagues who they see as being part of the other bloc. The other bloc is mainly a coalition of supporters of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and of some smaller anti-PTI groups. 

The other bloc is quite vocal about calling the Khan-led bloc a ‘cult’ that should be ‘deprogrammed’ because the people in it are ‘brainwashed’ and, thus, a threat to both the state and society. The space for any meaningful dialogue between the two has been shrinking due to a mutual lack of trust.

However, one can posit that the pro-Khan bloc has led the way in strengthening pernicious polarisation in Pakistan — so much so that, in 2023, Khan warned that no one would marry the children of men and women who supported his opponents. 

However, the good news is that, according to the V-Dem study, just 20 percent of the countries in the grip of pernicious polarisation have failed to decrease the levels of this strand of polarisation. The study notes that countries that succeeded in bringing down the levels of pernicious polarisation had to go through at least one of the following ‘major systemic shocks’: a foreign intervention, an independence struggle, violent conflict, or regime change (primarily in a democratising direction). 

An all-out war with one of its neighbours may see the intensity of pernicious polarisation decrease in Pakistan. But a regime change in April 2022, although achieved through constitutional means, actually increased the severity of the polarisation. Those studying political polarisation also explore the role of the mainstream and social media in this. 

In Pakistan, both forms of media have facilitated the increase in the levels of polarisation by taking the side of one bloc or the other. One set of media personnel see themselves as ‘defenders of democracy’ that wish to oust the military from politics, while the other set are claiming that it is safeguarding the country from ‘cultish’ political antagonists who have ‘invaded’ important state institutions. 

So what’s the solution? The aforementioned jolts mentioned in the V-Dem study are not the only way pernicious polarisation can be addressed. In Pakistan’s context, other, less alarming, jolts can work as well.

The speedy recovery of the economy, for example, can decrease the intensity of polarisation here. Polarisation in the country started to become increasingly pernicious when the economy began to go into a swift decline from 2018 onwards. It is still struggling.

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 21st, 2024

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