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Maria Alvanou:Political polarization is weighing heavily on society

Maria Alvanou

Dr. Maria Alvanou is a Criminologist actively engaged in study of security issues, such as terrorism, various forms of extremist violence, and countering measures for the forementioned phenomena. Currently as member of the Working Group “Covid19 and Viral Violence” she looks into forms of violence related to the pandemic with the support of CONVERGE (National Science Foundation-funded initiative headquartered at the Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder).

Nowadays, the world are becoming more and more complex. In some time ago, a war broke out between Russia and Ukraine, which brought great changes to the pattern of the world. It is thought that the war will aggravate the European political polarization. We asked Dr. Maria Alvanou for her views on the implications of this political polarization.

Maira Alvanou:Political polarization is weighing heavily on society


Why the Russian invasion on Ukraine will increase political polarization in Europe? Is political polarization good or bad? Does political polarization undermine global cooperation in certain areas such as climate change and COVID-19? Does it exacerbate the potential for international conflict? What indicators are there to measure the level of political polarization?


After the Cold War ended, many thought that political polarization would no longer be an issue, at least at a level affecting European security. Despite such predictions, the events of 9/11 and the way new forms of terrorism and their respective counter-terrorism responses affected societies, as well as the deep financial crisis, shaped new ideological positions polarizing once again European societies. The most dangerous aspect of this polarization has been radicalization to extremist and/or terrorist violence, a phenomenon that the EU has tried to prevent and thwart through various policies. Additionally, COVID-19 proved to be more than a health crisis, as not only several states enforced measures that led often to unprecedent limitations of freedom in democratic societies, but also groups of citizens adopted conspiracy theories promoted by certain groups and turned against their governments. Vaccine mandates added to the problem as people were divided to vaccinated vs. unvaccinated, with the second group arguing that freedom of their bodies was at stake and under attack by their governments. This is the background of the Russian invasion on Ukraine, regarding the existing political polarization in Europe, that could be very well increased now, due to a number of reasons. First of all, this war has already had its impact on energy and trade, damaging economy. As winter approaches, the financial toll on citizens, the adequacy of consumables and provisions as well as energy problems affecting their everyday life (e.g. power cuts) could be a reality people would not expect to experience in modern times, disrupting their basic living conditions. Lack of trust towards political parties and the political system (due to past and still existing problems), inflamed by populist rhetoric can be expected to exacerbate political differences and escalate the reaction of citizens to measures their governments will take, leading even to the use of violence. Another very sensitive parameter regards the use of Muslim Chechen fighters by Russia against Ukrainians. One of the problems in European societies has been the rhetoric by both far- rightists and Islamists, trying to polarize audience and create pools of sympathizers by constructing and sustaining an image of conflict and irreconcilable cultural differences between Christians and Muslims. There is a symbiotic relationship between these two extreme circles and the presence of one helps the survival of the other, as the concept of the “enemy” plus the collective religious and cultural identity seem to be very effective tools for radicalizing followers and convincing them to use violence for “protection” and “self-defense”. The narrative of Muslims against Christians fighting in Ukraine (accompanied by the atrocities of war) serves very well this rhetoric. Thus, the introduction of a religious parameter in this war could lead to polarization endangering radicalization prevention policies or deradicalization policies.

When we are talking about political polarization trying to evaluate it, we need to have points of reference and criteria to complete this task. If we take into account democracy, social cohesion and security as starting points for this evaluation, then we can easily understand the negative influence of political polarization. Democracy is par excellence the system where different opinions are expected to co-exist and thrive protected by freedom of expression and speech; however, dialogue cannot be sustained in an environment of conflict and animosity that polarization creates. Such conditions do not really favor pluralism as a factor of the political system. Furthermore, when citizens are divided in ways where no common ground can be found, then society cannot function as a whole and it remains fragmented, unable to reach a level of solidarity necessary in order to address common issues of concern and find solutions. Finally, security wise, polarization cultivates fertile ground for violence to erupt. Trying to prevent or counter extremist and/or terrorist violence in a polarized society, is like trying to cut of the heads of Lernaean Hydra.

Like in individual societies, the world needs a certain degree of cohesion and agreement between countries in order to address global problems, where the answer must be collective on international level. We cannot deny that perceiving climate change as a serious environmental danger for the planet as well as adopting certain protective strategies that would affect energy, trade policies as well as technological developments is something depended on political ideologies, but also financial, geopolitical, and geostrategic balances. The same stands for health crises, like COVID-19, because the spread of the virus globally had much to do with measures countries would take (or not take) on domestic level. All countries opted for protecting the health of their citizens, yet measures differed especially regarding the level of restrictions imposed. And here political ideology also was a defining element, as putting more weight or less weight to expressions of freedom citizens are entitled to enjoy and cannot be forbidden is the result of political orientation. As travel bans and closing the frontiers could not be continued forever, it is evident that a common strategy is needed before a new outbreak of COVID or any other pandemic, ensuring a globally accepted balance between freedoms and health safety.

When we are looking at political polarization and its role to international conflict, the best historical example is the rise of the Nazi in Germany and WWII. Whenever extreme political sides are gaining power and due to grievances, negative conditions etc. their rhetoric gains momentum, then they potentially become dangerous, unless there are checks and balances and institutions inside society to ease tensions and deconstruct propaganda. Often political polarization needs scapegoats to point the finger at who is allegedly the enemy, the one responsible for problems countries face. This can very well be presented to be a foreign country, the ideal villain. There is another benefit of this disorientating strategy: citizens overlook problems and their domestic reasons, focusing just on the “external enemy”. In this way political polarization can be behind international tensions and conflict, that can lead even to aggressive, military interventions and war.

To measure political polarization, we should not just remain on calculating the ideological distance between voters for the governing party chosen or positions on certain important and challenging issues societies are facing. Although this is an important indicator, political polarization in society means much more. We should be looking at the positions and the rhetoric of political parties and if one side politically delegitimizes the other (which is completely different from expressing strong political opposition and trying to show the shortcomings of the other political party) and if they aim to the division of society, as a means to obtain and preserve power. Furthermore, social media and internet in general can show us qualitative characteristics of the political debate between citizens and if it takes forms of hate speech, threats, even incitement to violence. How media support political parties is also an indicator of political polarization if we have cases where apart from the phenomenon of fake news the problem would appear to be systematic incitement to violence against citizens of different political ideology or even the state. Finally, the actual eruption of political violence, is proof that political polarization is affecting society seriously. Much of this evaluation has to do with understanding and evaluating content, the “message” that is expressed and the consequences caused. This is why it is important for social scientists to actually carry out such a task.

Short CV

Dr. Maria Alvanou is a Criminologist actively engaged in the study of security issues: terrorism, various forms of extremist violence and radicalization to them, social unrest and the framework of prevention and countering measures for the forementioned phenomena. For her expertise she was invited as an IVLP participant by the U.S. State Department- Counterterrorism program. In her research she shows special interest about gender, with her doctoral thesis regarding women perpetrators in suicide attacks and her later scholar work on women and far right movements. Her postdoctoral research examined Internet incitement to terrorism. She holds a postgraduate studies title in History, Philosophy & Sociology of Law. She is a member of ITSTIME Research Team for Security, Terroristic Issues& Managing Emergencies (Catholic University of Milan) and the Radicalization Awareness Network expert pool. She is associated teaching staff at the Neapolis University of Pafos, teaching Homeland Security for the distance postgraduate learning program. A member of several international expert networks, she has lectured and participated in conferences abroad and her teaching experience includes law enforcement and military educational institutions). She is a Supreme Court Defense Lawyer and as a Mediator. As a member of the Working Group "Covid19 and Viral Violence", she has been looking into forms of violence related to the pandemic with the support of CONVERGE (National Science Foundation-funded initiative headquartered at the Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder).



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