Defusing dangerous polarisation

February 11, 2024

The new government will have to work hard to diminish the polarisation of dominant political narratives in the country

Defusing dangerous polarisation


lections are over, unofficial results are in and allegations of rigging have been brought on record. Once negotiations with smaller groups and independent winners are complete, the next government will be formed. It will face some serious challenges including some that have to be overcome immediately to ensure smooth functioning under the new government.

The biggest challenge for the new government will be coming up with an effective legitimacy narrative. Given the allegations of rigging and political engineering, it will have to work with the major political forces to restore stability. To that end, it will need to address the grievances of the political workers and activists who have been harassed, arrested and persecuted, particularly those not directly involved in the May 9 riots. The new government will have to work hard to diminish the polarisation.

Defusing dangerous polarisation

The current level of polarisation can be gauged from an incident that took place in Peshawar a few weeks before the elections: a father was reported to have killed his 31-year-old son, who had recently returned from Qatar, for hoisting the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf flag at their home.

On February 5, this scribe met a 24-year-old youth on Lahore’s Jail Road. He identified himself as Nasir. His head was covered with a heavy layer of surgical bandage. Asked what had happened to him, he said, “My younger brother smashed a bottle over my head after we argued about Imran Khan and his credibility; he is a staunch PTI supporter.”

The polarisation and political intolerance led to several incidents of violence before and after the polling. Some of the hate mongers crossed every line and were using filthy language against political rivals; state institutions including the judiciary, army and the election commission; and the media. The intolerance has weakened the state’s structure and eroded its effectiveness.

While Pakistan is suffering on account of terrorism, a weak economy, huge public debt, runaway inflation and the looming threat of natural calamities resulting from climate change, political instability and polarisation are the biggest obstacle to handling these issues through effective measures and long-term policies.

Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistan Muslim League leader, has repeatedly said in his election speeches that he has forgiven his opponents and left the matter to Allah Almighty. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the Pakistan People Party chairperson, has also promised to end what he has called the ‘politics based on division and hatred.’ Former president Asif Ali Zardari, the other most influential leader of the party, is already known for his eagerness to seek political reconciliation. In the past, after the harmful acrimony in the 1990s, the PPP and the PML-N had agreed on the famous Charter of Democracy. The adherence to the agreement resulted in the 18th Amendment to the constitution, enhanced provincial autonomy and ended a long era of political victimisation. Among the beneficiaries of this development was PTI which emerged as a large political force and following controversial elections in 2018 formed governments in three provinces and at the Centre. However, as prime minister, its leader Imran Khan broke away from the spirit of the charter, taking the country back to an era of political victimisation through registration of cases and arrests of PML-N and PPP leaders, using the National Accountability Bureau.

The practice must end. The new government should form a committee to expand the scope of the Charter of Democracy. It should also invite other political forces, including the PTI, to be part of the process of political reconciliation. If polarisation is not defused, the future governments will have to work amid political instability and be unable to deliver on the governance front. Political instability and lingering polarisation will further devastate the economy and the governments will be unable to do anything about it.

While talking to journalists during the Tausha Khana case trial in Adiala jail, former prime minister Imran Khan had hinted that he was willing to talk to anybody, including political opponents. Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari must seize the opportunity. They should send their emissaries to Khan and invite him to join the consultation for a new charter of democracy. It will be a challenging task. However, if Khan agrees to be a part of the dialogue, political polarisation in the country might dissipate quickly.

The next challenge for the government will be to elect a president and replace the retiring senators. These essential landmarks have the potential of raising the level of polarisation. President Arif Alvi has already completed his constitutionally mandated tenure. He is currently serving under the constitutional clauses providing that he can continue in the office until the election of the next president. 46 members of the Senate will retire in March 2024 and the National Assembly and the four Provincial Assemblies will elect new senators. If the political polarisation persists, these elections will add to the instability. If the government moves quickly to settle these issues, it will improve its chances of doing well in facing its other challenges such as fighting terrorism, stabilising economy, curbing inflation and mitigating poverty.

All political forces and other stakeholders must appreciate the gravity of the situation and contribute to the efforts to curb polarisation and intolerance in the society so that the nation can embark on a new voyage towards prosperity.

The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and analyst. His X handle: @BukhariMubasher

Defusing dangerous polarisation