Polarisation in Pakistan

Maryam Nawaz, one of the top leaders of Pakistan’s prominent political party – Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) – in her speech on 21st March 2021 urged the ‘Punjabis’ to stand up for their rights. Historically, such statements are used to be made by the nationalist politicians of Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces. Regardless of its pretext, consequences of such remarks should be well thought out by a mainstream political leader given that it may fuel ‘identity politics’ in the largest province of the country instead of promoting a sense of common destiny between people of the country.      

Political polarisation, being widely discussed across the globe these days, is described as divergence of political attitudes is normal and useful in democracies because it helps citizens in distinguishing the political choices. However, severe polarisation becomes a threat because it results in destroying democratic rules and institutions. For instance, populist leaders of the US, Poland, India, Kenya and Brazil have put the democracies in danger in the recent past. Yet we need to study the patterns of polarisation in different parts of the world and whether it emerged as a result of political leadership or advent of social media, or else. Experts argue that populist leaderships emerged as a result of pre-existed polarisation. Whatsoever the case may be, divergence of political attitude introduced in Pakistan can be characterised as amalgamation of Chinese model of economic development, Turkish model of Islamic socialisation and western models of liberal democracies.    

Given the fact that polarisation is rooted in Pakistan on the basis of multiple identity markers including ethnicity, socioeconomic inequalities, linguistic and demographic divisions, and religious and sectarian prejudices. Yet, our conscious attempt to create unity between diverse communities on ‘religious grounds’ has resulted in distracting Pakistan’s political as well as social discourse at large. Nevertheless, Political division in the country has escalated very quickly within past few years, on a pattern similar to many other countries, became a super-cleavage and has overridden all other divisions. For example, it is likewise in the US where being a Democrat or Republican has become a most important identity marker. Interestingly in Pakistan, one’s identity marker may be a follower of populist leader Imran Khan or the opposite side – either conservative, centrist or leftist.        

Experts posed another argument that growing economies ease the polarisation. Whereas studies reveal that the growth of middle class in India has led to rising support for polarising Hindu nationalist narrative. Nevertheless, populist narrative succeeded in Pakistan at the time when the country’s GDP growth rate was 5% and climbing up, which has now declined to below 2 percent.     

Recent developments demonstrate that a faction of political affiliates in Pakistan, on a pattern similar to the US and some other countries, are violently opposed to democratic order, yet, consider themselves to be the true democrats. A narrative built around corruption of political leadership, like the issue of imposing ban on abortion in the Poland, has led to curtailing democratic process, intensifying anti-democratic behaviours as well as growing political extremism in the country.       

Undermining the independence of judiciary and weakening of democratic institutions, some of the key features of political polarisation, are quite evident in Pakistan. For example, the Election Commission of Pakistan and National Accountability Bureau (NAB) are being accused by political opponents for playing partisan role in their routine practices. Reciprocal attacks on judicial institutions has damaged their ability to arbitrate a conflict as well as heightened the distrust between opposing sides. For instance, Islamabad High Court has recently reverted the issue of Chairman Senate Elections back to the parliament.   

Increased polarisation has gridlocked legislature in Pakistan given that it has shattered basic democratic norms of mutual respect and compromise between opposing political views on broader public policy issues. Hence as a result, unlike the previous two successive democratic governments who delivered on 18th Constitutional amendment and election reform, the existing populist regime, at the other hand, could not make it possible to deliver on any issue of public importance.   

Pakistan’s transitional democratic discourse shows a trend of increasing use of ‘toxic views’ and deepening the ‘politics of fear’ which experts characterise as some of the key dangers of political polarisation. As a consequence, the pre-existed fashion of labelling Kafirs (infidels), traitors or Indian, Jewish or American agents to the people with different opinions has increased manifold in Pakistan since last couple of years. Moreover, an ongoing clash of words between political opponents on social media, including on the health issues of leading political opponents Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, shows a tendency of polarisation beyond ethical values. The much heightened culture of political intolerance has made it difficult for opposing sides to keep the political competition within limits and to accept electoral defeat which is crucial to continue the democratic process.       

Mounting arguments in favour of the presidential order in replacement of the existing parliamentary system and repeated efforts to neutralise or reverse the 18th Constitutional amendment can be characterised as ‘re-writing the fundamental rules’ which, according to the experts, is another key danger of political polarisation. Centralised approach to govern, as has been experimented many times during the dictatorship regimes, would result in reverberating the multi-layered polarisation throughout the society as well as poisoning the relations between federating unites which possibly can impact the national integrity.       

Political polarisation is Pakistan has emerged as a serious challenge. Experts argued that it escalates swiftly and drags the countries into a downward spiral of anger and division, as it is quite obvious in the case of Pakistan. However, it requires political stakeholders to immediately start working on possible the solutions before it further erode the country’s unconsolidated democratic system. Some of the possible solutions, as being experimented in other countries, include: decentralisation of political powers; legal or judicial actions to limit polarisation and majoritarianism; and developing consensus between political opponents around democratic rules and key public policy issues.   

Note: this write-up has been framed based on the findings of Carnegie’s research ‘How to Understand the Global Spread of Political Polarisation’, 2019. 

by: Muhammad Rafique

The Writer is a Human Rights and Democracy Expert. He can be reached at rafiquepak@yahoo.com

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