Political Polarization at its Extreme – Pakistani Politics in Crisis

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US Civil War – The Peak of Political Polarization

The US in the middle of the 1800s, almost a century after it gained independence, was in a deep conundrum. Debate about whether slavery should be allowed in the country had polarized the whole country. The southerners wanted to keep their slaves for their cotton farming, whereas the northern states declared it an evil and wished to elimination of slavery from all of the country. The debate eventually broke down and the country spiraled into a full blown civil war. It tore the union apart and cost thousands of lives in its four years’ time. The civil war in the US is a stark reality of how political polarization can weaken even the strongest of countries.

What is Political Polarization?

To assess the challenges and issues associated with polarized politics, it is important to understand what polarization truly means. Polarization, in any spectrum of discussion, means to be at the extreme ends of something. Political polarization is characterized by complete lack of consensus or constructive debate between the ruling party and the opposition. Democracy and liberal ideas go hand in hand and one aspect of liberal democracy is consensus based decision making.

The political polarization degrades the political procedures in parliaments to mere bickering or halting the passage of bills just for the sake of annoying their rivals. The time that should be spent on refining economic and fiscal policies is spent criticizing one another. The parliament is not the only place that suffers from this curse. The supporters of the party find themselves in a precarious situation in which while trying to defend the actions of their party, they pass derogatory remarks towards the opposition. The political polarization has a spillover effect as it degrades the social cohesion as well. 

Trail of Bread Crumbs – a History of Mistrust and Unjust Intrusion

Pak since its inception has been in a political catastrophe. From periodic military interventions, to a judiciary that sided with dictators on multiple occasions, Pakistan’s democracy has had numerous pit stops. The spiteful status of democracy can be judged by the fact that no prime minister has completed its five year term in the 75 year old history of Pakistan. This political instability leads to political parties playing victim cards to hide their ineptness. Regardless of their otherwise lackluster performance in governance and institutional reforms.

Another reason for political polarization is the failure of state institutions in conducting transparent elections. A party that deems the election as unfair has no incentive to participate in the political procedures of the parliament if it feels that the ruling party has been undeservingly given power.

Another contributor to this polarization is the ethnic divide between the federating bodies. Punjab and Sindh dominate Pakistani politics because of their large representation in the national assembly. The large voter base in these provinces makes the politicians more inclined to initiate infrastructural projects in these regions. This leaves a large demographic, particularly in Balochistan and KPK to be left feeling unrepresented and devoid of their fair share of monetary funds and resources. The resulting backlash from theses provinces and their elected representatives causes a great divide among the politicians. Each in their respective provinces blaming the other for degrading the federal system. Labels like traitors and sellouts are common in these heated debates.

The last nail in the coffin came as a set of politically motivated criminal charges against popular leaders. The case in mind being of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The popular leader was controversially sentenced to death which has since left the province of Sindh in disarray.

The Effect of Lacking Consensus

The continuous disagreement of political parties on various issues leaves the general masses feeling helpless. The political deadlock causes many of the policies that could possibly benefit the local population, to be sidelined. One such example is that of Kalabagh dam. The study for the dam and all of its preparations cost millions of dollars of taxpayer money. Failure of political parties to come to a meaningful consensus has caused the project to being shelved for decades. A country which desperately needs new sources of energy should be willing to bare some sacrifices in the name of greater good. Alas, political polarization has stopped it from availing this opportunity.

Bad Voter Turnout

The feeling of helplessness and detachment of the local population from the political processes of the country is also evident from the low percentage of voter participation in general elections. Pak turnout in 2018 elections was 51 % which was drop from the 55 % in 2013. The political polarization also leads to other state institutions being forced to interfere in the executive procedures to stabilize the politico-economic spheres.

Involvement of military and judicial activism in recent years are evidence for this. Chief justice Saqib Nisar created the Diamer Bhasha dam fund in 2018 which is a clear example of judicial overreach. Finally and most importantly, political polarization causes massive fissures in the frameworks of society. The supporters of different political parties feel obligated to defend the actions of their leaders. This in some extreme cases makes people defend even alleged criminal activities of political leaders, just for the sake of supporting their point of view. The phrase used in the 2018 elections “khata hai to lagata bhi to hai” translates roughly to ‘even though he is corrupt, he spends some of the budget on projects’. This shows to the extent that polarization in politics destroys the moral grounds that hold society together.

The Current Picture

The general lack of accountability and weak implantation of law allows many of the alleged white collar criminals to avoid any punishment. Ineffective intelligence and accountability bureaus along with loopholes like plea bargains makes it easier for corrupt politicians to manipulate the system and get rich without any real fear of consequences. Furthermore, the literacy rate of Pakistan paints a sorry picture as well. Feudal systems, unwillingness towards sending girls to schools and widespread poverty all contribute towards the failure of true representation of democracy. 

Without proper education, people are easily gullible to false information which the corrupt politicians use along with fake promises to sway voters. Instead of delivering on their electoral promises, politicians manipulate the outgoing information to suit their election campaigns and even manipulate mainstream media to some extent. Social media is another emerging tool for politicians to misinform the masses.

Rise of Populism

The emergence of populism as a means to gather support is also on the rise. The main tenets of this approach include: blaming the current problems of the country on the previous government and championing their battle against the corrupt elite; aim to sweep away the possibility of a middle ground between their political rivals, depicting compromise as betrayal and seeking to amplify and exploit any opening for discord; the use of post-truthism i.e. using a combination of lies and truth in a manner which makes it impossible for common people to discern between what is truth and what is not. Populism not only makes use of internal grievances towards the political elite but also blames foreign powers for interfering in the country’s matters.

Bridging Gaps and Healing Wounds

Improvement in education and decreasing out of school children is the first step towards the right direction. Next, a culture of healthy debates in schools, between party members as well between rival parties should be encouraged on the same pattern of how presidential debates in the United States are conducted. This will make people aware of the competency of the politicians. Furthermore, it will force the political parties to draft possible solutions for the economic and administrative problems of the country. The fear of being ridiculed in the eyes of the public will force them to do so.

Finally, the role of judiciary and accountability bureaus cannot be stressed enough. These institutions are the back of a strong democracy and should be strengthened. Any criminal whether a normal citizen or a political leader should be treated at the same level.  Many of the evils in politics will automatically be filtered out if the criminals are swiftly brought to justice.

Hopeful Future

The main crux of the whole debate presented is that polarized politics is deeply seated in Pakistani politics. It is degrading not only the status of democracy but also the entire socio economic spectrum of the whole country. The politicians spend their time maligning the image of their political rivals. This wastes precious time that should be spent on solving the country’s problems. The techniques used for polarization include the use of populism, manipulation of mainstream media and social media campaigns.

A holistic approach both towards increasing literacy and promoting a culture of healthy debates is required. Political Polarization of the extent Pakistani politics is facing is a great menace and detrimental to its very existence. Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. All the citizens should work towards a more harmonious and tolerant society. One in which national interest and the progress of the country is the first and only aim.

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talha farhat
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