Here are a few of last week’s headlines:
“Sweden’s dominant centrist party reverses its position and announces willingness to work with right-wing nationalists.”
“To retain power, [Canadian Prime Minister] Trudeau must learn to work with rivals.”
“Israel faces third election in less than a year.”
“Iraq prime minister says he will resign amid protests.”
“Finnish Prime Minister Antti Rinne resigns after coalition collapses.”
“Pelosi asks committee chairs to proceed with articles of impeachment.”
In some countries, opposing political groups figure out how to reach agreements, govern, and share power. In others, long-standing hatreds make it impossible for them to move forward. Opponents are not seen as political rivals but as illegitimate enemies with toxic agendas and unforgivable past behaviors. The mere possibility of any deal with people or groups that promote unacceptable platforms – or worse, that have been accused of crimes and abuses – becomes morally and psychologically intolerable. A compromise with them often means political suicide for those who dare to propose it. But sometimes it’s the solution. Hard to swallow, certainly, and easy to denounce by appealing to morality and justice, yet a solution nonetheless. Other times, however, the inability of political opponents to reach an agreement dooms a country to political paralysis. Between 2010 and 2011, for example, Belgium spent 589 days without a working government because opposing factions could not reach an agreement.
The inability of political opponents to agree can doom a country to political paralysis
While polarization has always existed, it is now becoming the norm in most of the world’s democracies. That’s a problem. Naturally, the divisions in any democracy are reflected in each election, but more and more often nations are finding themselves in political gridlock because no single group receives enough votes to form a government or is able to form a durable coalition.
This was not always the case. Decades ago, South Africa and Chile managed to avoid political violence and, as a result, experienced prolonged periods of stability and progress thanks to alliances between historical enemies.
Nelson Mandela achieved what no one believed possible: a peaceful transition from white minority rule and apartheid to a democracy in which the black majority reached power. In Chile, the process took a lot longer, but eventually succeeded. To transition away from the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, the democratic movement had to negotiate an agreement with the dictator that many Chileans found unacceptable. Not only was he allowed to remain a senator-for-life but he also remained the untouchable commander of the Armed Forces, who was able to prevent elected presidents from removing military officers from their posts. The Chilean Constitution also protected the military’s right to name a certain number of senators and automatically allocated 10% of the nation’s copper export revenue, one of the country’s main sources of income, to the Armed Forces. Obviously, for those who had suffered the persecutions and torture of the military junta, this compromise was revolting. Yet this distasteful compromise between the military and the forces of democracy paved the way for a peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy.
As we know, neither Chile nor South Africa have been able to save themselves from the recent political convulsions that are causing massive protests and unrest. But both societies benefited from a long period when political enemies managed to live together.
While polarization has always existed, it is now becoming the norm in most of the world’s democracies
After the abolition of apartheid in South Africa the economy expanded, inflation fell, and social programs proliferated, many of which benefited the needy black majority for the first time. In Chile, the various political factions – including those who supported Pinochet and those who suffered under him – managed to agree on economic reforms. The result was one of the world’s most successful economies. According to the World Bank, in 2000, more than a third of Chileans lived in poverty. By 2017, the proportion had dropped to 6.4%.
Yet, these successes were not enough. In South Africa, unemployment, rampant corruption, and an inept government fueled widespread frustration. In Chile, vast sectors of society were neglected. In both countries, economic inequality is now among the highest in the world.
It remains to be seen whether these two countries can create coalitions that can move their nations forward. But the challenge facing Chile and South Africa is the same that most of the world’s democracies are facing today: How to create consensus between groups that hate each other.
It is quite possible that the world will soon be divided into democracies that are mired in irreconcilable conflicts that cause them to stagnate indefinitely and others that – because they can still broker compromises between political enemies – manage to form working governments. In the 21st century, compromise between people who hate each other may become a requirement for the survival of democracy.