Are presidential debates necessary? :: Kenya


That media houses in Kenya plan to hold three presidential debates is a welcome initiative. These would be the second such debates held in Kenya, the first being the ones organised prior to the 2013 elections.

It is especially important that the debates will be aired on both television and radio given the fact that many Kenyans cannot still afford television sets or that they do not have the electricity to power them.

During the 2013 debates, we had a manageable list of candidates, and the eight were invited. Even then, some felt the format was cumbersome, and that the organisers should have whittled down the number to allow a serious interrogation of the candidates and issues. In the United States, for example, the debates often have the Republican and Democratic candidates.

This time, the list is long – with reports indicating 18 will run – mainly because of the number of independent candidates.

It is not clear yet whether the media stations will invite all the candidates given the view that some are ‘pretenders’ seeking their few minutes of fame in a highly contested political landscape.

Moreover, whether some of these candidates really add value is a matter of  contention although there is no gainsaying that their participation will not add much value to the discussions, and may only serve to reduce the time that the more ‘serious’ and ‘electable’ candidates should be given to explain themselves, their ideologies, positions and views (if any) and manifestos.

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Meaningful discussions

It would thus be interesting to see how the media houses handle this.

However, the number of candidates raises a number of questions on the capacity of the media and whether they shouldn’t make a(n) (un)popular decision to invite or ignore some for the sake of having serious and meaningful debates and discussions. I leave that to the organisers but it’s something I am sure they may have not only contemplated but also decided upon.

Back to the debates. In 2013, the incumbent was not running and was thus excluded from the debates. Even then, it was doubtful that Mwai Kibaki, the president then, would have attended the event given his disdain for the media and such staged events.

However, that made the event more interesting, open and exploratory given that it was the first time some of the candidates were on such platforms.

Contempt for the media

For example, many Kenyans had never really heard of Mohamed Abduba Dida (and he is still running in 2017!) and audiences may have been curious to know who he was, what he stood for, and whether he had the capacity to run a country.

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This time we will, hopefully, have President Uhuru Kenyatta, given his sometimes contempt for the media, and the fact he had at some point refused to attend the second of the 2013 debates citing biased questioning.If he attends, it would be interesting to see how the media handles him because of his position and given the fact that the spotlight would largely be on him.

Granted, in some instances, incumbents often get their way because of some reverence, and thus media houses and moderators’ incapacity to ask tough, follow-up and sometimes ‘unpalatable’ questions.

Some moderators are even awed by the presence of such powerful figures. On the flip side, it would also be interesting to see how the media handles the situation if he does not attend although I am sure the event will continue.

Performed poorly

Whatever the case, and because politicians in Kenya are hugely adversarial especially in public spaces, most of the other candidates would be focusing on President Kenyatta as they try to discredit him and his regime in the hope of ejecting him from power.

This also means the focus of the questioning and examination will be on the president given his Government has thus far done badly in terms of dealing with serious issues such as inflation, corruption, land grabbing, poverty, crime and general political and fiscal management and governance.

There are also many unfulfilled promises for which he should be held to account. This means he will need the ‘protection’ of the moderators who have to be adequately prepared to critically interrogate the candidates, and divide time equally (if at all possible) among the numerous candidates.

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Besides, we hope that the parties will have produced their final manifestos by that time given that such documents serve to tell us what the parties and their candidates have in store, and thus should be basis for media interrogation or questioning.

On that score, the media should be bold enough to question not only the preparedness of the candidates but their integrity, honesty based on evidence rather than dogma or hearsay.

The moderators should have the courage to call the bluff of candidates unable to articulate issues concisely, clearly and persuasively.

In an era of fake news and alternative facts, the media will need to have fact-checkers to determine the accuracy of the candidates’ pronouncements as some are wont to use the occasions to make pompous and untruthful (maybe popular) claims.

Deflect and obfuscate

The discussions can only be meaningful if the debaters are challenged, especially if it is proven that their statements are untrue and were made just for sound bytes that appeal to certain constituencies.

For example, The Guardian (of the United Kingdom) summed up the 2013 thus: “With no time for in-depth follow-ups, the politicians could deflect and obfuscate. … [they] plied empty statements and denied they were involved in scandal”.

In addition to the above exposition, it is expected that the media houses will either give the public an opportunity (preferably prior to the event) to send in their questions.

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This is because such events are often held on behalf of the public, and that any questions asked are of public interest based on issues affecting the citizens. Granted, we expect the event to offer us a platform in which we can question the ability and capability of the candidates on several matters although statecraft should form the bulk of the questions and responses during the debates.

All said, however, it is important to interrogate the place and efficacy of such debates in Kenya’s political environment where other factors, particularly ethnicity, determine political behaviour and voting patterns.Other than serving as platforms for the furtherance of parties’ and their candidates’ agendas, they hardly influence voting outcomes or political behaviour.

My conclusion is informed by the fact that eloquence, and demagoguery are not determinants of performance although there is little doubt that people will ‘hardly vote’ for candidates who cannot articulate their issues in public particularly in such fora.

For example, the performance of Raila Odinga in 2013 debate was rather dismal.

However, his public performance outside such spaces is extemporary and he is known to be eloquent and charismatic although that may be the result of the charm offensive that he employs in the presence of his supporters and the fact that the choice of what he wants to talk about is his own.

Ultimately, and despite the various questions and concerns, the debate is something worth waiting for, and definitively watching if not attending.

The writer lectures at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Nairobi.

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