Old Divisions, New Dangers: Political Polarization in South and Southeast Asia


Polarization is feeding on long-standing political divisions and clashing social identities, including those of majority communities that feel aggrieved or threatened despite their electoral dominance. It has intensified during the past two decades, propelled by powerful factors from rapid economic development to gradual societal shifts. It is damaging democracy, civil society, social cohesion, and the rights of minority groups, those are some of the “sobering” conclusions of Political Polarization in South and Southeast Asia: Old Divisions, New Dangersa new analysis from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

In five of the six country cases considered —India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand—long-standing sociopolitical divisions have become inflamed during the past two decades and clearly represent a threat to democratic governance and social cohesion. In numerous other countries throughout these regions—such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan—the power and dangers of deep sociopolitical and sociocultural divides are similarly evident, note editors Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue.

The diverse experiences examined in the report suggest four overarching guidelines for domestic and transnational actors designing, implementing, or evaluating efforts to contain polarization, they conclude:

  • First, expectations for such initiatives should be kept modest and time frames long. Polarization tends to be rooted in long-standing divisions—aiming to overcome or end it altogether is a recipe for disillusionment. It is better to think in terms of trying to manage the problem and mitigate its harmful effects. Doing so will require sustained efforts that eschew high-profile, quick-win activities in favor of patient relationship building and iterative gains over extended periods of time.
  • Second, whoever seeks to engage against polarization should have an in-depth grasp of a country’s economic, political, and societal dynamics to understand what might be useful and what might be futile. Polarization exhibits common patterns across different places, but its roots and drivers vary so much by country that all remedial efforts need to be closely tailored to local contexts.
  • Third, deep-reaching change will require going beyond short-term bridging efforts to modify the underlying rules and structures of a given country’s political and economic systems, usually in the direction of greater inclusiveness. Such modifications may range from the decentralization of power to reforms of electoral systems and political party systems to make them favor greater representation and power sharing. Reformers should anticipate and prepare for the fact that dominant groups will fight back against inclusionary efforts, often leading to increased polarization in the short run. But over the long term, given that polarizing political forces often arise out of grievances rooted in perceptions or realities of exclusion, inclusiveness is key to making the societal terrain less fertile for divisive political agendas.
  • Fourth, both domestic and transnational actors seeking to play depolarizing roles need to
    assume that achieving credibility on both sides of a polarized divide will require persistence,
    skill, and a strong commitment to higher principles. For domestic civic groups, sources of
    such credibility may include a proven track record of neutral political engagement, outreach
    to partners on both sides of a divide, transparency about objectives and methods, and a
    high degree of technical expertise on relevant reform areas….RTWT
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