Political intolerance: A threat to democracy

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Political intolerance: A threat to democracy
Political intolerance: A threat to democracy

Africa-Press – Eswatini. Africa is a continent where contestation for power has continued to dominate the political landscape for many years. It is within the realm of contestation for power between political actors where we have witnessed confrontations of all kinds, which in many cases has spiralled to violent conflict.

Many African states and politicians continue to make news headlines not because of their robust intellectual engagements on how to advance the socio-economic livelihoods of fellow citizens but on toxic confrontations, which borders on sheer political intolerance.

If one analyses African politics very closely, you will no doubt realise that political power in many cases is not won and lost in the battlefield of ideas through the strength of persuasion but won on the back of gross political intolerance, which causes retardation of ideas, innovation, creativity and growth of political consciousness amongst the people due to fear of misconception of such ideas by their political opponents or fellow comrades.

This is despite a widely held belief in Africa that democratic societies are built on the concept of political tolerance where politics should be a market place of ideas which are supposed to persuade voters to cast a ballot not out of fear but out of a strong belief in sound policy that are meant for their socio-economic progress.

There are several factors that are responsible for political intolerance that is rampant in the body politic of many African societies. People become intolerant when their interests are threatened or when they feel that they stand to lose their benefits, privileges, power and rights that they have always enjoyed.

In this sea of madness, bigotry and dogmatism often take centre stage anchored on the notion that “my views and beliefs are true and always right”. This is common amongst Africa’s political elite who believe that their views, values and aspirations are absolute or gospel truth, which all must follow without question.

In addition, intolerance is also a product of what Raminge calls “politics of belly” where people in a political party, trade unions, government or society at large seek to position themselves to be considered for plum jobs, lucrative tenders or any form of political favour. It is within this arena that those who give alternative views are either demonised or satanised and a flurry of poisoned arrows are unleashed upon them with apocalyptic impunity. In other words, politics become a zero sum game where elimination of political rivals is not based on contestation of ideas but on other acts of political chicanery that runs in contrast with ethics of democratic political processes.

Last but not least, political intolerance grows in environments where the rules of democratic game are either nonexistent, not clearly defined, are simply not enforced or are enforced unfairly. Examples here include electoral systems and processes, which are skewed in favour of one group/political party and to the disadvantage of others.

In some cases those electoral systems lack independence and impartiality, electoral rules and procedures tend to inhibit free and open electioneering. This is common in African states where some political parties and individuals (especially those in power) realise that they have lost national appeal and popularity.

Their intolerance of those who challenge their positions may also drive them to resort to using the tribal and ethnic card for their political survival by seeking to mobilise political support along ethnic and regional lines. In addition they may temper with the electoral process in a manner that end up creating a mockery to democracy itself. This is very common during either national elections or congressional elections within many of Africa’s political organisations.

The use of social media has also added to the culture of intolerance in African politics. It is common for political parties to have some social media platforms, which in a normal setting one would wrongly think is meant to be used for faster dissemination of information to members or the general public at large.

However, in most cases these platforms have become a perfect arena for party militias (mostly operating pseudo accounts) to spew venom and toxic propaganda against their opponents. It is common for insults and other unpalatables to be exchanged between rival political opponents in the social media. There is often a total disregard for decency and intellectual engagements within these platforms, which really pollutes the digital political space in a big way. All these factors mentioned are serious contaminators of our democratic space and most importantly governance. These contaminators of democratic space and governance seriously inhibit not only democratic transitions within many states and within political organisations, but are also a serious impediment to a widely desired culture of political pluralism that can go a long way to guarantee peace and harmony, which is a cornerstone of democratic consolidation.

In addition, when it comes to impact on inner party democracy within political organisations, intolerance creates anarchy that often leaves political organisations very polarised and vulnerable to permanent instability. It is very common that the toxic intolerant atmosphere created by a culture of intolerance in the build-up to party congressional elections impact negatively on post-election reconciliation efforts between party cadres and some of them either defect to new political homes or stay inactive from politics.

This then impedes the growth and stability of political organisations. African politicians especially in leadership of their countries and political organisations must recognise that in order for democratic engine to be well propelled, regardless of any strategy, the best public policy should arise out of citizens’ willingness to imbibe positive values as well as other attributes and be ready to tolerate the expression of a plurality of opinions, including those different to their own.

Democracy must encourage a wide array of ideas, beliefs and values even those which may offend some segments of the population, provided such rights and freedoms are guaranteed in the laws of the land.

Worth noting is that members of democratic societies are not expected to agree at all times with individuals who do not share their political beliefs, endorse their political objectives or even like them, but expectations in a pluralistic democracy are that they put up with them through tolerance of their rights to free speech, assembly and advocate for their political objectives.

My parting shot is that political tolerance is vital to the functioning of modern, liberal democracies. In societies where individual rights and freedoms are recognised and protected, some amount of tolerance of difference is required. Most important to note is that a culture of tolerance involves debate and dynamic exchanges of opinions and arguments, whereby people can learn from others, get closer to the truth, and benefit from a vital public life. Developing a culture of tolerance is a long-term undertaking that removes the roots of intolerance and is necessary for the democratic process.

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