Are our kind of presidential debates really necessary?

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A general view shows the eight Kenyan presidential candidates (L-R) James Ole Kiyiapi, Musalia Mudavadi, Paul Muite, Martha Karua, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Mohammed Dida, Uhuru Kenyatta and Peter Kenneth attending the second presidential debate at Brookhouse School in Kenya's capital Nairobi, February 25, 2013. REUTERS/Joan Pereruan/Nation Media Group/Handout (KENYA - Tags: ELECTIONS POLITICS) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - RTR3EAEF

By David Matende

Kenya’n are often chided as the quintessential copycats. From the way they dress to what they eat and how they speak English, Kenyans are unabashed borrowers of the foreign.

This month, media houses will host US-style presidential debates ahead of the August 8 General Election. Some say that the presidential debates are a sign of a maturing democracy, that they may help the voter decide who is best suited to be president.

Well, that might sound good, but I think our presidential debates are a waste of time, energy and resources – unless they are meant to be part of the overall TV entertainment.
It is assumed that because these debates sway voters in the US, they will also influence the way we will vote here. That is why we have borrowed the idea, including the format.
The United States presidential election debates are a series of debates held before the presidential general election. While these debates have in the past changed the game in the US, in Kenya they are just another chapter in the tragic-comedy that is Kenya’s campaign period.

If you doubt it, just roll back to 2013 when the media organised the first such debate. Do you think they played any significant role in influencing how people voted? No. As a matter of fact, none of the voters interviewed by journalists after the debate said they would change the way they intended to vote.

This year’s debate will not make any difference either – take this to your bank. It is safe to claim that everyone who will vote on August 8 has already made up their mind on the candidate they are going to vote for, debate or no debate.

The way we make political choices here is different from the way the Americans do. We are different. While the US has a huge middle-class that is influenced by the performance of candidates during the debates, the average Kenyan voter does not take into account, or may not even grasp the complicated issues raised at these debates.
Secondly, Kenyans care little for certain key qualities Americans look for in a leader. These include proficiency in public communication, organisational capacity, political skill, and cognitive style as well emotional intelligence.
There will be two televised presidential debates this month (on July 10 and on July 24), just a couple of weeks to the election.

The organisers, mostly senior journalists drawn from the various media houses, are under the illusion that by holding the debates, they are helping voters make informed choices.
In their wise thinking, they also imagine that the debates will help promote national cohesion and put focus on the quality of leadership rather than on personalities.

The organisers certainly mean well. As their leader, Wachira Waruru of Royal Media said when he announced the debates, the media are keen to entrench a culture of civilised political discourse by giving the public opportunities to listen to, question and interact with the candidates.

Much as this attempt at civility in politics is welcome, it is, unfortunately, an exercise in futility. Coming after months of ill-tempered campaign rallies all over the country – mediated, of course, by the self-same media – the effort is like an attempt to dry oneself in the rain.

Perhaps this attempt at “civilising’ our politics would have had an impact were the organisers more imaginative, taking into consideration the unique dynamics that drive our politics. But they seem to be keen on imitating the way it is done in the US, despite the vast differences.
In 2013, like this year, there were two televised presidential debates. Eight television stations and 32 radio stations aired the debates simultaneously

The debates adopted a town-hall style format, each having two moderators and four panellists, who engaged the presidential aspirants in a question and answer session for 90 minutes.

This format was borrowed from the US, with little, if any, changes. Like it is done in the US, our debates are divided into segments, with the moderators introducing a topic and giving each candidate time to give their views on the topics.

Although in the 2013 debates the moderators did not facilitate discussions between the candidates, I suspect that they may do that this time around.

But while in the US the debates are organised by an independent body called the Commission on Presidential Debates, in Kenya, it is an initiative of the media.

Although the professional capacities of the journalists involved, either as organisers, panellists or moderators is not in doubt, Kenya’s media has a history of bias, and it is not baseless to argue that some of them could be unfair to some of the candidates.

As a matter of fact, one of the moderators of the 2013 debates, Julie Gichuru, was accused by sections of Kenyans of having had a bias against then Cord candidate, Raila Odinga.
Like in the US again, the organisers seem to have come up with certain criteria for participating candidates. The organisers of the last US debate stipulated three criteria for eligibility for the presidential debates: constitutional eligibility to serve as president, appearance on enough ballots to potentially reach 270 electoral votes, and an average of at least 15% on five selected national polls.

In Kenya, only the candidates with more than 5 per cent support among voters qualify, although like in 2013, this has been contested and we may have all candidates participating.
If the 2013 experience in anything to go by, the questions will hinge on the economy, security, education, the constitution, foreign policy, national cohesion, etc. The issues raised may include national debt, SGR railway, food security, free education, interest rates, terrorism, devolution, the land question, regional inclusion, etc.

In the US, during all the three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate last year, the issues most raised in moderators’ questions was the Syrian civil war and terrorism, US-Russia relations, immigration, job creation, Trump’s taxes, and Trump’s lewd leaked recording, the Supreme Court, Social Security, taxation of the wealthy, the national debt, Iraq, the Affordable Care Act, “uniting the country”, nuclear weapons and the legitimacy of the election, were each the subject of two questions.

It is important to repeat that while this is a good initiative, it will have no impact on the choices Kenyans will make on the D-day. Even the educated members of the middle class, that small percentage of the population that may grasp the arguments advanced by the candidates, will not change their positions regardless of the performance of the candidates.

Some of my readers may argue that indeed the debates add value, citing the 2013 case of candidate Abduba Dida, who surprised many by polling 52,848votes, beating “serious” players such as Martha Karua and Paul Muite, which was attributed to his participation in the debate.

But the fact is Dida impressed just a small fraction of undecided voters, who may have been humoured by his idiosyncrasies, otherwise the support base of the Big Two (Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta) remained unmoved.

Perhaps a more imaginative approach might have an impact, going forward. First, the organisers, instead of timing the debates a few days to the polls like it is done in the US, may consider holding them a little bit earlier – at least before the start of the rancorous campaigns.

That way, voters might be able to pick out the most able candidates before their minds are polluted by the toxic propaganda spewed at campaign meetings, most of which are covered live anyway.

Secondly, the organisers might consider changing the format, so that instead of the borrowed town hall style format; why not hold the debates in public spaces?

They may also consider changing the language of the debates to Kiswahili entirely. After all, this is the language used at the political rallies and the one almost every Kenyan speaks. This way, almost everyone will get the messages.

I dare also suggest that the debates should concentrate on the issues Wanjiku can identify with directly. This is not to say that the questions asked in the debates are not germane; I am simply suggesting that complicated concepts such as interest rates or foreign debt should be broken down in a way that will make sense to the grassroots voter.

The debate, and indeed the election, comes at this time when the country needs imaginative leadership like never before. It would have been very good if Kenyans judged and voted for candidates based on their ability to solve our problems, but as stated above, this will not be the case.

A country where sixty per cent of the population is below the age of 24 (two thirds of them are aged below 15 years) and whose economy is growing at about 5 per cent surely must vote for a leader who can articulate how he will create jobs and gainful opportunities as well as improve and increase health, education and socioeconomic welfare.

And with rains having largely failed this year and with too much hunger around (forget the lie about subsidized maize), only a leader who can show how we are going to feed ourselves in the near future should get the vote.

Last but not least, the candidate who can prove to the voters that he is honest about tackling corruption – that big beast that always devours our hopes for prosperity – is certainly the one qualified for the high office.
Unfortunately, this is wishful thinking.

…to read more please purchase the Nairobi Law Monthly Magazine July 2017 Issue at only Kshs 350

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