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Pakistan Current Political Polarization

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Pakistan Current Political Polarization

Causes, effects and solutions

Pakistan is suffering from political polarization like the rest of the world. Elite disunity, radicalization, socioeconomic decline and politicization of science, religion and technology are major contributors to political polarization in Pakistan with spillover effects. This division can be resolved by taking effective measures to promote harmony, unity and in-depth analysis of issues our beloved country is facing. However, it is also true that some level of conflict is good and natural for society as political polarization has led to an increase in voting and massive political participation in many countries.
Today’s Pakistan is divided into two houses. This division is termed political polarization which is the divergence of political attitudes away from the centre, toward ideological extremes. This is not a new phenomenon, though. Pakistan has been facing polarization since its conception. People of different sects, castes and colours come under one ideology of religion as Muslims, striving to practice religion without any interruption. However, there were also further divisions in a common religion. With the passage of time, disharmony and disunity started to prevail among provinces, which resulted in the 18th amendment. All the factors responsible for disagreement were mostly socioeconomic in nature. Political parties used these dispersions by blaming other political parties in pursuit of their own interests. There are some underlying causes of this political polarization.
There has been a heavy role of ideology; ideology-oriented politicians are reinforced by competitive elite strategies. Some sub- cultural elements, which act to strengthen the internal cohesion, became the reason for rivalry among elite groups and parties. For example, a politician from a specific province always gets maximum votes and plans the expenditure budget accordingly. Balochistan’s political and economic suffering is an obvious example of this division. Not a single reputed politician or elite is from Balochistan. So, the chances of development there are almost zero. This creates a sense of insecurity and alienation. Politicians used these differences in their election campaigns, built their narratives accordingly and created hopes for change. However, the reason behind this type of alienation is totally structural that needs to be resolved in Assemblies by passing out resolutions with a two-third majority. The active role of political parties, leaders and the elite forms the political preferences of voters. According to an empirical research, political polarization is a top-down phenomenon and the elite orientate the voters, after a certain lag.
The polarized news consumption also leads to political and social diversification, often called the Hostile Media Effect. It is a phenomenon in mass communication that is a perception of media coverage as biased against their pre-existing ideology. The development of media was being considered an indicator of a well-informed nation, an educated atmosphere and a democratic environment in the country. But what we see in talk shows and politicians’ interviews is beyond just informing the public about the current scenario. A strong relationship has been seen between political polarization, TV-watching habits of consumers and content credibility. These media channels are backed by certain political parties and built their biased content according to their will. Public sentiments are shaped through biased reporting, which creates intense radicalization. This radicalization has been seen during election days. For example, during 2022 bye-elections, two were killed in NA-240 constituency and several were injured. This is not new; similar acts of violence have been seen for many years. Even working places are divided on the basis of favorite politicians. Heated debates are happening in homes, streets, bazaars and ceremonies.
Failure of many socioeconomic policies and unbridled population growth have polarized political opinions too. Pakistan’s economic situation has been affecting the lower middle class and daily wagers. Growing inflation, rupee depreciation, current account deficit, and IMF loans break the back of a common man. Political parties promised prosperity and change in their election campaigns without informing the severity of the problem. These socioeconomic policies create hatred and rebellious attitude, causing a political divide.
Digital technology is also a potential driver of polarization, pointed out by many scholars and policymakers. It is bringing new opportunities to bring about better accountability and transparency. Technologies are threatening the health of both advanced and unstable democracies by publically publishing socio-economic indices. This online information provides statistics in one aspect and destroys democracies in another one. Unregulated technological innovations are not respecting one’s privacy by leaking out personal videos and mobile recordings. Even, the premier’s phone (ex-PM Imran Khan) was surveilled on. Although digital technology helped a lot, respective consequences shape public opinion. People are divided between knowing incomplete and disguised information. This division is used by political rivals in election campaigns, creating hurtful sentiments and dispersion.
The politicization of religion is used by many parties. TLP and PTI used religious narratives in election campaigns. One of the very famous parties used a religious narrative of performing Jihad by voting for good ones and eliminating corrupt ones. The underprivileged community felt connected with the narrative and they voted for a ‘pious’ party. Similarly, immense violence by TLP was seen, resulting in the disqualification of the party. Public resentment is shaped by building religious narrative, creating chaos, diversion and violence.
Science has become a politically polarizing issue. The politicization of Covid-19 prevention techniques has seemingly slowed their adoption and obscured the dissemination of scientific facts, thereby amplifying the spread of a deadly disease. A global report found Americans are three times more likely to trust scientists if they identify as left-wing. It’s not just the US, Pakistan is also facing polarization. Political actors are increasingly featured and scientific actors less so. For example, climate change coverage is politicized by political parties. Only those inventions are cherished and funded, where the political party is getting maximum benefit. Budgeting for the electronic voting machine in Pakistan’s upcoming elections is expected to be the most expensive exercise in Pakistan’s voting history. The political tilt toward political goals rather than capacity building created dissatisfaction and diversion.
Some effects of political polarization have been observed by scholars and political scientists. From a public policy standpoint, political polarization makes it more difficult for elected officials to govern effectively. It has threatened key elements of democracy. Democracy is a system of government with four key elements: a system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; protection of human rights of all citizens; and a rule of law. Each of these mentioned components has been affected due to political polarization. Every political party resolves only these issues on a priority basis that are necessary for its survival. Pakistan was placed at the 104th spot among 167 states on the Global Democracy Index 2021, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Pakistan’s democracy is considered hybrid because; the people and the establishment are governing it. The political crisis has affected democracy by inflicting political polarization. Not a single party completed 5-year term.
This polarization also created a psychological effect like “camp-mentality”, us vs. them and weakens independent (of party-political interest) public opinion. The stronger the camp-mentality, the more biased citizens’ information and the less objective their picture of political reality becomes. Selective perception of political reality with blurred objectives decreased the efficiency of voters’ decisions. A double standard becomes operative, where violating basic norms is acceptable on ‘Our’ side while being unforgivable on the ‘Other’. The disappearance of a common standard leads to moral relativism and gives rise to political irresponsibility and corruption. The stronger the polarization and the farther the parties are from the median position, the more dependent swing voters’ actual party choices are on the success of the given party’s efforts at policy-distortion and her aesthetics. Median voter model stakes are low.
Successive government cycles reduce the efficiency of public policy. Public policy diverges from the median position. The incumbent party does not pursue a centrist public policy and adjusts to the median position – as its own voters would not identify with it, and the number of centrist voters decreased. The life span of a public policy regime changes with each government cycle – its benefits often fail to materialize.
Appointment policy in filling positions in public administration, government, state and public institutions was affected badly. This effect is called The Patronage Effect. Filling positions that require parliamentary nomination and/or approval has become more and more problematic. The proportion of mediocre candidates has grown in the affected bodies.
Weakening the boundary between political and legal responsibility reduces politicians’ immunity from legal accountability, stigmatization of political opponents and the criminalization of politics. This effect is called “The Delegitimizing Effect”. With a polarized political spectrum, the stakes of losing the governing position increase, which motivates the incumbent party to stabilize its position by institutional means, changing the rules to its advantage.
Public sentiments regarding international trade imbalance make them alienated from the benefits of globalization. Research findings indicate that there is a positive and statistically significant cross-country association between levels of income inequality and political polarization.
Hence, it is concluded that political polarization has weakened the responsibility and accountability of governments. Some spillover effects are psychological, moral, public policy, patronage and delegitimizing effects. Ultimately public welfare suffers. Some solutions are devised by political scientists and policymakers to overcome this polarization in the world. Some of these are discussed here.
It can be observed that there is a need to increase the level of tolerance to other views, responsiveness to other views, exposure to dissimilar views, to accept multiple ideological dimensions, enhancing economic self-interest and reducing external shocks. If a population is stubbornly intolerant and on a trajectory to runaway polarization, low exposure decreases the probability of interactions between mutually intolerant groups. This, in turn, preserves ideological diversity by inhibiting repulsion. Governing the digital and bridging digital divides is necessary to halt propaganda elements.
Ireland has been running several citizens’ assemblies since 2016, to make policy recommendations more inclusive. Citizen assemblies are regarded as civic model for enabling more meaningful contact between groups involved in conflict, discussing issues in a way that can highlight where common ground exists.
Perspective-taking instead of side-taking through printing press: Pinker speculates that some of the literature written from the perspective of black slaves may have been instrumental to the abolition of slavery. Similarly, if literature provides sense of unity and in-depth knowledge regarding our socioeconomic situation, things could be different.
Subordinate sense of identity is needed to bridge smaller difference. Richard Dawkins recently tweeted that, “National pride has evil consequences. Prefer pride in humanity. German pride gave us Hitler, American pride gave us Trump and British pride gave us Brexit. If you must have pride, be proud that Homo sapiens could produce a Darwin, Shakespeare, Mandela, Einstein.” McFarland and colleagues recently reviewed and found that those who identify highly as citizens of the world are indeed more empathic. So, a deep sense of unity is required to be more empathetic and unite.
Many countries employ a proportional (or mixed) system, which means that if a party gets 5 percent of the popular vote, they will receive 5 percent of the seats in a given representative body. There is evidence that more proportional systems have higher levels of voter turnout (at least for supporters of smaller parties). In turn, that increase in turnout is correlated with citizens being more likely to report feeling that their vote makes a difference. This doesn’t necessarily stop politics becoming less polarized, but it might make it harder for the extremes to come to dominate.
Voting for policies, not for parties, and to hold direct referendums on specific issues can also be a solution to this polarization. When designed well, referendums might cut across existing partisan divides, and if a clear majority is reached, they can signal a new social norm that can help a country move forward. California and Switzerland both regularly use referendums to address complex policy issues.
It can be concluded that with political positions influencing decisions, people may sacrifice wages, lose out on jobs, make suboptimal purchases and disregard opportunities to save. Employees accept lower wages to work for politically like-minded entities, and people may select higher-priced products or ones that offer less-functional value. Polarization has the potential to prevent neighbours or colleagues of opposing parties from developing friendships. This ultimately deprives individuals of intellectual diversity, among other things. Obstruction of social relationships stemming from political polarization can cause both mental and physical harm. For instance, beliefs relating to global warming, affirmative action, wealth inequality and gun control often tend to reflect individuals’ political affiliations rather than a deliberate processing of relevant information that results in evidence-based decision-making. In addition, the broader negative impacts of these policy areas on society as a whole have the potential to harm individual mental and physical health over the long term. The researchers suggest a number of potential measures to limit the effects of polarization by reducing the spread of misinformation; using messaging techniques to try to bridge the different values of liberals and conservatives; and limiting the length of political campaigns. At the same time, the researchers acknowledge that some level of conflict is good and natural for society, and that polarization has been shown to increase voting and political participation.

The writer is a psychologist and speech and language pathologist in special education sector, as well as CSS aspirant.

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