Uncivil politics

IN Pakistan’s deeply polarised environment, the political conversation has been reduced to a slanging match between political leaders who increasingly resort to provocative rhetoric. Partisanship is so intense that supporters of rival parties applaud such conduct by their leaders and revel in their displays of hurling bitter invective at opponents. The lack of civil discourse has become an unedifying feature of the country’s political landscape.

Two aspects of the political culture are not new, but have become more pronounced and pervasive today because of greater polarisation. One, excessive preoccupation of political leaders with maligning opponents and accusing them of every transgression or crime. The allegation is no longer that the other side is unfit to govern, but that it is guilty of nothing less than being unpatriotic or a tool of foreign powers. And two, the severity of language being used and the political rancour it reflects. Offensive remarks by party spokesmen now border on the crude and even vulgar, as exemplified at a recent presser by PTI’s Shahbaz Gill. Not to be outdone in this game, spokespersons of the ruling coalition have also been using unseemly language against the PTI leader.

Rarely has the public discourse plunged to this level — and the general election isn’t even near, as campaign season usually sees an escalation of intemperate rhetoric. Such is the animosity between political rivals, who act as if they are engaged in a terminal conflict, that saying anything and everything to vilify the other is regarded as fair game with nothing deemed off-limits.

Inflammatory statements that fail the truth test are frequently made with little regard for their implications. The no-holds-barred denigration of opponents has turned insults into a political weapon.

Of course, unbecoming conduct was witnessed in the past too, when political leaders traded wild allegations, often during election campaigns. But the uncontrolled language and norm-breaking behaviour on display today is unprecedented.

The angry and toxic environment this is creating is in turn giving rise to an unparalleled level of intolerance among followers of rival parties and further dividing the country.

People are left with the impression that power, not public purpose, drives political leaders.

The 24/7 broadcast media, especially television talk shows, play off combative politics and reinforce it by pitching political opponents against each other and encouraging noisy clashes. But it is social media that has magnified polarisation and provided a platform for scurrilous political content. Because party activists have anonymity on digital platforms such as Twitter, this minimises the risk of retribution. It is therefore easy for them to disseminate disinformation and unsubstantiated allegations against political foes. The social media has also enabled people seeking partisan sources of information to live in digital bubbles and shut their minds to views different from their own. This produces hyper partisanship and further deepens the political divide.

Four major consequences follow.

First and foremost, this debases the political discourse and denudes it of focus on serious issues. There is little political debate on policy issues and challenges facing the country, much less on addressing them.

At a time when Pakistan’s problems need sober debate on how to solve them, personal attacks and name-calling hold sway. This obviates reasoned or informed discussion. What passes for political debate is dominated by invective, not argument. With unrestrained language becoming the norm rather than exception, this degrades the political conversation.

Two, this toxic political culture makes the working of the political system near impossible. As the middle ground is eliminated by extreme positions held by political leaders, tolerance, compromise and mutual accommodation needed to make the democratic system work becomes elusive. With the ethic of war — to vanquish the ‘enemy’ — rather than the ethic of competition shaping political behaviour, this rules out efforts to engage rivals, much less show them respect. Rabid partisanship has made the political centre ground shrink, with no one making any effort to bridge or even manage differences.

Moreover, when both sides accuse each other of treachery or the most egregious crimes, it eliminates room for dialogue and even minimal cooperation in the political process. This exposes the political system to the risk of paralysis and dysfunctionality. What is lost is the obligation to work the political system in the public interest.

Boycotts, disruptive behaviour and shouting matches are hardly the way for public representatives to live up to their responsibilities. It is certainly not why their constituents have sent them to parliament to represent their interests.

This undermines democracy and puts the political system on a slippery slope to democratic erosion.

The third consequence is the kind of issue-less politics that emerges in this environment. Rather than focus their competition on public policy issues, political leaders prefer to demonise their opponents. This distracts them from articulating what they stand for and explaining their party programme. It is left to talk show hosts to tease out their stand on national issues, but even then their responses are directed more at berating opponents than explaining their party’s view. This environment is inimical to the generation of new ideas needed to deal with the country’s multiple challenges. It also leaves people with the impression that political leaders are either indifferent to serious issues or the party platforms of erstwhile political rivals have become indistinguishable — as power, not public purpose, drives them.

The inescapable impact of this on people is to feed the perception that political leaders are more interested in outdoing each other and unseating the government of the day than in issues of concern to them. Politics is then seen as little more than a power struggle among elites disconnected from the problems and aspirations of citizens.

Constantly squabbling leaders, accusing each other of sleaze and uncivil conduct, erode public trust. What people want instead is well known and reflected in a recent Gallup poll. This found that a decisive majority of people, 78 per cent, want political differences to be resolved by dialogue and not resort to agitational activity. When this doesn’t happen, public cynicism and disenchantment with both politicians and political institutions follow. This leaves democracy in disrepute.

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

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