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Political Polarization: Has Zimbabwe Found the remedy?

Political polarization is one of the growing conflicts perpetuating factorthat is negatively affecting peace and social cohesion building in Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans are evidently divided over politics such that today, decisions made in government ministries, departments and agencies including service delivery institutions as well as non-government institutions including churches, burial societies and village development committees are polarized. This growing division (mass, elite and party polarization) generates practical questions on how Zimbabweans define their nationalistic (patriotic) identity and associated challenges ahead to building a peaceful and reconciled nation.

Social cohesion indicators warns that Zimbabwe is a nation bitterly divided by political polarisation more than other factors. Politicians, political parties, and decision makers prefer this growing division with frequency and certainty such that the polarity and its costs go unquestioned.  However, to raise awareness on the cost of political polarisation and the importance of depolarising communities, Heal Zimbabwe in partnership with Zimbabwe Television Network (ZTN) hosted a dialogue meeting,on 27 August 2021 bringing together the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC) and key political players in the country including the ruling party Zimbabwe African National Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) and the Movement for Democratic Change – Alliance (MDC-Alliance). The Zimbabwe Gender Commission also took part in the dialogue given its significance and mandate in gender justice advancement. 

Political polarisationgenerally refers the lack of tolerance of different political views or perspectives.But its impact goes beyond the political arena. Polarisation is largely dangerous to peace and social cohesion when individuals begin to socially segregate themselves, distrust, and dislike others from the opposing side, irrespective of whether they disagree on matters of policy. In the Zimbabwean context, polarisation has manifested itself mainly through partisanship: where one’s political affiliation affectivelydetermines one’s public treatment, access to and use of public resources.

In Zimbabwe, political parties are at the centre of politically polarising people,  communities and their institutions (state and non-state institutions) as they compete for state power. In the process of politicising the masses and their institutions, political parties create social divisions based on political affiliation, foment violence, perpetuate gross human rights violations, and leave societies politically charged, reeling with anger and intolerant of political diversity. Acknowledging this enduring challenge, panellists noted that what causes political polarisation in Zimbabwe is mainly the failure to understand multiparty democratic practices. It was argued that patriarch, a political culture of unipolarity, partisan reporting by the media, selective application of the law and impunity were polarizing factors in Zimbabwe. At grassroots community levels, the distribution of aid has been done based on partisan grounds and has contributed to political polarization (us vs. them).

In principle, however, political parties must value democratic principles that promotes free political participation and tolerance. Thus, creating non-polarised environments where political participation and social mobilisation does not generate mutual hate and violence. In this instance, to depolarise communities it takes political parties to uphold a positive political culture that strengthens tolerance and diversity in a way that makes political difference mutually appreciated and valued.

Towards Depolarization

The dialogue agreed that indeed political polarization was arising from political parties’ failure to tolerate socio-political diversity and acknowledging the essence of democratic freedoms. To remedy this growing challenge, therefore, it was recommended that there is need for political parties and state institutions to respect human rights, uphold fundamental freedoms and strengthening the independence of state institutions. The dialogue noted the need for all political parties to create a shared national space where socio-political values of engagement are agreed. This calls for an enforceable code of conduct for political parties and their followers. Cultivating a culture of tolerance to political diversity will build respect, trust, and encourage unity of purpose, thereby reducing violence and conflicts based on political affiliation.  Decision making in state and non-state institutions will become humanely objective and developmental, hence building peace and social cohesion among diverse actors and citizens. In addition, addressing grievances associated with past human rights violations and inequalities will promote collaborative problem-solving actions.

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