What can we learn about political polarisation from Kenya and Taiwan?

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Kenyan politicians in parliament
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Political polarization is one of the main factors which play a role in driving political behavior. While an inclusive and diverse society might encourage political pluralism and positively affect economic growth and democratization, a higher level of ethnic diversity and ideological division can intensify polarization. If there is no effective reconciliation mechanism, polarization between the different political actors in a democracy is bound to deepen. The speed of polarization may differ, but the common denominator across democracies is that societal sub-groups must make choices about their political affiliation or face various difficulties.

In a forthcoming article due to be published in the July 2022 special edition of the Taiwan Journal of Democracy, we provide new insights into the challenge of polarization through a comparison of Kenya and Taiwan. In Kenya, polarization is associated with ethnic identity. The instrumentalization of ethnicity for political ends is identified as a divisive issue and a negative part of Kenya’s political culture. This article looks at ethnic polarization in the country through the lens of elections. This approach is taken because of Kenya’s history of electoral violence and compromised elections, which take place within the context of a weak and poorly institutionalized political party system.

In 2008, the issue of electoral reforms became a priority in Kenya’s political agenda in the wake of the worst post-election violence the country had ever seen, lasting over two months. Significantly, the country’s political system was subsequently reorganized through a combination of legal reforms and negotiated democracy. Subsequent elections in 2013 and 2017 were relatively peaceful, but the situation nevertheless remains fluid ahead of the 2022 elections due to the fact that ethnic cleavages are still a salient factor in Kenya’s politics.

In Taiwan, polarization is driven by political-ideological differences between two major political parties and has gradually worsened since the first democratic power transition in 2000. Empirical research based on survey data used to explore polarization in Taiwan found that national identity and attitudes towards Taiwan-China relations were the two critical polarizing issues. In 2004, concurrent presidential and referendum elections stimulated Taiwanese voters to move toward either of the two ends of this spectrum. Legal scholars studying voting records found that political parties were now more cohesive than before, that levels of partisanship rose, and that party loyalty became more critical for political elites in search of secure political futures. In the last few years, these two major parties competed against each other on almost all issues, except for the two critical polarizing issues.

In this article, we argue that polarization is highly correlated with the short-term strategies of political elites, who utilize it to gain support and identify non-supporters. Polarization is not a necessary consequence of democratization, nor does mobilization occur only along the lines of preexisting ethnic or other cleavages. Instead, polarization arises because of the instrumental interest of competing political parties to adopt confrontational strategies that are likely to divide the electorate into opposing camps. However, while this aggressive strategy might be effective in mobilizing supporters and getting votes, it can damage confidence in elections and in democracy itself.

Having explained the underlying causes of polarization in Kenya and Taiwan, we then explore the extent to which political polarization impacts democracy, and the role of elections in young democracies, in cases where the causes of polarization are different. This is undertaken using data collected in 2019 from the seventh wave of the World Values Survey (WVS) for Taiwan and Afrobarometer round 8 survey data for Kenya.

The findings tell us that if political elites were willing to reform the electoral process, then political parties could play a role in reconciling divisive differences and consequently increase the probability of successful reform. This suggests that politicians can overcome the challenge of polarization and win public support for reform by embracing cooperation across parties. More importantly, the results imply that a trustworthy electoral process could reduce the conflict between winners and losers. In other words, the cause of polarization in different democracies needs to be considered while examining the relationship between polarization and democratic support and vice versa.

Our study suggests that if political elites were to ask their competitors to jointly find a common ground to consolidate the democratic system, this would increase the level of confidence in the electoral system and could help change people’s hostile attitudes toward their opponents, thus decrease the levels of polarization.

Encouragingly, even though the causes of polarization are different in the two countries, our findings show that the solution to deal with polarization might be the same. Both in Kenya and Taiwan, citizens are still counting on the election to be the way in which to maintain support for the democratic system.

Our analyses come to two main conclusions. In the case of young African democracies, where ethnic divisions are the fundamental reason for unstable politics, the electoral process needs to provide fair opportunities to all ethnic groups. While electoral reform could potentially deal with different ethnic interests, there is no guarantee that losers will consent if the reform process does not satisfy all sub-groups, thus creating new tension among the elite. Therefore, the effect of electoral reform on resolving polarizing issues varies depending on the nature and level of disagreement. Electoral reform might converge slightly different perspectives, but the effect is limited if the cause of polarization is not resolved.

In the case of new Asian democracies, where partisanship and ideological divisions lead to polarization on various policies, the electoral system must ensure voters always have viable alternatives. If the electoral system provides too many advantages to the incumbent party, that party could effectively disable the ability of challenger parties to survive and thus lowering confidence in democracy among the losers.

The Kenya-Taiwan comparison implies that elections matter for political stability in a polarized society, showing that this article is an insightful addition to the growing academic literature on political polarization in new democracies.

Dennis L.C. Weng (@DennisWeng) is an associate professor of political science at Sam Houston State University, USA.

Catherine Musuva is a non-resident research associate at the Centre for Research on Democracy (CREDO) at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

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