Pakistan’s new fault lines

PAKISTAN’S enduring political fault lines are well known. But newer ones have emerged to make the political environment more challenging if not combustible.

Key among the more long-standing fault lines are ceaseless government-opposition confrontations and the country’s persisting structural economic problems, which the lack of political consensus has left unresolved. These have been consequential for the country and have undermined both the evolution of democracy as well as economic and political stability. They continue to be perpetuated by tediously recurring conduct and policies.

New fault lines may resemble long prevailing ones but are distinct in many ways. The most obvious is the political polarisation that today characterises the country. There are few if any precedents of this even though divisive politics is not new. This polarisation has divided people, society and families as never before along intensely partisan lines. The brand of populist politics practised by PTI, with its either-with-us-or-against-us stance, has drawn rigid political battle lines especially with its leaders now casting all its opponents as venal, unpatriotic and pawns of foreign powers. Its narrative of being ousted from office by a foreign conspiracy finds ready believers among its base of angry urban youth who are willing to discard facts. This narrative also helps to delegitimise opponents in the eyes of its followers. The xenophobic nationalism purveyed by its leaders is sowing further division in the country.

Polarisation and the narrative defining its contours has meant that politics has assumed the form of ferocious political warfare in which opponents have to be eliminated from the political scene in a terminal conflict and not competed with, much less accommodated. This take-no-prisoners approach has erased any middle or meeting ground and ruled out any possibility of bridging the divide. Extreme partisanship is making the working of the political system near impossible.

True that democracies elsewhere are also floundering in the face of intolerant populist forces polarising their societies. But that only testifies to how democratic systems are being challenged because of weak commitment to democratic norms by demagogues, rising intolerance and lack of restraint in politics. In fact, democracy is rendered dysfunctional when denuded of the essential ingredients to make it work — tolerance, consensus and accommodating the interests and views of ‘others’. The danger Pakistan faces today is of democratic backsliding.

An aspect of the country’s polarised politics is how this has injected a toxic quality into political conversation and debased what passes for debate. The language and political narratives deployed by party leaders increasingly flout the basic norms of civility.

Politics has, of course, never been polite in Pakistan. The 1990s, for example, saw a good deal of political name-calling, character assassination, and accusations of disloyalty to the country, with top leaders frequently dubbed as ‘security risks’. But the political culture today has sunk to even lower depths of incivility.

Provocative rhetoric and statements that routinely fail the truth test are made with abandon and with no regard for the consequences. The no-holds-barred vilification of opponents has also meant insults have become a principal political weapon. The weaponisation of politics has spawned a culture permeated by incendiary allegations and norm-breaking behaviour. The political fabric is now in danger of being perverted on a more lasting basis.

Weaponisation of politics has spawned a culture of norm-breaking conduct.

There is no doubt that social media has amplified the country’s polarisation and reinforced this political fault line. Again, this is part of a broader worldwide trend. Demagogues and their followers elsewhere have vigorously used digital platforms for political gain by purveying misleading information to manipulate opinion. Here the social media has become a new arena or war zone for a political battle aimed mostly at maligning opponents and disseminating sensational ‘revelations’ about them.

Recent weeks have seen malicious campaigns by supporters of the former ruling party not only against leaders of the coalition government but also against the country’s military and judicial authorities. Accusations of no less than treachery have been made against almost anyone who doesn’t support this party.

Anonymity on digital platforms gives party activists deniability and frees their trolls from fear of any retribution. That encourages them to continue efforts to create an ‘alternate reality’ by spreading false information. The ‘foreign conspiracy/imported government’ narrative, for example, has been trending on Twitter for weeks even though it doesn’t rest on a shred of evidence.

Apart from influencing gullible minds, social media’s magnifying power generates paranoia by such messages and promotes a hollow form of nationalism in this post-truth environment. By playing off and reinforcing polarisation, messages spread through digital channels that call out others as traitors, are not just deeply offensive but also corrosive of the political system.

This brings up another new political fault line. Defiance of institutions be it the judiciary, parliament or the Election Commission, when they do not deliver decisions that suit a particular political party, encourages disrespect for them, breeds cynicism and widens divisions in society. This is now happening on a scale rarely witnessed before.

Supreme Court judges have been the target of criticism by PTI leaders who have also demanded the resignation of the chief election commissioner. This has translated among the party’s supporters into a blanket rejection of these institutions and refusal to accept their decisions. The most damaging consequence of this is that it rules out resolution of political disputes through institutional means.

Unwillingness to play by the rules is hugely destabilising for the political system. It can also sow public disorder and lead to a chaotic situation that poses a danger to the democratic system itself. This, sadly, is where the current political situation may be headed today.

We have seen in other parts of the world, including our neighbourhood, populist demagogues show contempt for their nation’s constitution and its institutions and upend democratic norms. The question is whether Pakistan’s fragile democracy can survive such assaults at a time when social cohesion itself is at risk from old and new fault lines.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

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