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Presidential debates can be game-changer

By By Andrew Kipkemboi | Published Mon, February 11th 2013 at 00:00, Updated February 10th 2013 at 22:42 GMT +3

By Andrew Kipkemboi

NAIROBI, KENYA: Kenyans tonight sit back and watch the first televised live presidential debate, which is an initiative of local media organisations.

Expected to be followed by millions on television, radio and online, as well as print media platforms later, the debate will be held at Brookhouse International School auditorium in Karen, Nairobi. The second round will be on February 25.

As Kenyans gear up for the mouth-watering encounter of six presidential contenders, could it be that the candidates are walking into the debating chamber oblivious of the pitfalls that lie ahead?

With an election that pollsters have predicted to be too close for a first round win, the performance of a candidate tonight, could make or break a candidate’s dreams.

Maybe that is a long shot, but then it has happened elsewhere. Debate night could mark the night a candidate imploded or when another one hitherto written off, stole the limelight. 

According to pollsters Ipsos Synovate and Infotrack, the voters most lethal during a debate are the undecided. Infotrack Chief Executive Angela Ambitho says one of the reasons why such voters are still undecided is because factors other than tribe inform their decision. “Alternatively, they are yet to make up their minds because they do not see any desirable qualities in any of the current candidates ... the debates would act as a catalyst for their choice of candidate.”

Mr Tom Wolf, a researcher at Ipsos Synovate, however says the effect of the debate on the election outcome depends on many things.

“It depends on how many viewers watch the show and who are those viewers.” He adds it would depend also on what a candidate does during the debate.

Voter mobilisation

But he reckons that with an election in three weeks, it might boil down to mobilisation and voter turnout on the actual day. “The mobilisation of the voters is far much more cost-effective than going on for the undecided during a television debate than many might not watch.”

Last October, in the US where debates are part of the electoral process, Democrat and incumbent Barack Obama, was left staring at defeat after his disastrous performance in the first contest against Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

After Romney decisively won the first round, Obama staged an impressive recovery a week after.

Overall, performance of candidates in debates have proved to be the tipping point. That rare misstep; that gaffe; that uncalculated remark that portrays a contender as having miscued the spirit that defines the moment, may be all it takes for a candidate’s dreams to come tumbling down.

The Associated Press wrote that though presidential debates are seldom determinative, they can alter the direction or pause the momentum of a presidential contest.

It actually offers a platform for the candidates to take on their opponents and the public a chance to see their leaders up and close.

The Ipsos Synovate and Infotrack opinion polls released two weeks ago predict a tie in the election outcome and 10 per cent of the voters are considered undecided, which according to Ambitho, mostly represent the chattering classes.

That is why the debate could be the ultimate game-changer as the hitherto aloof middle-class are sucked into the electoral maestro.

Debating ability

“Apart from the undecided voters, there may be some middle class voters who whilst they have made their choice on presidential candidates, may change their minds based on the competence and debating ability of the candidates.”

In truth, the debates may provide a regulated media in which the politicians can address the politically indifferent middle class.

After the rigmarole of the campaign trail where sometimes the message is tweaked and distorted to suit the audience, the contenders bring their message live.

This is where the personal character and the demeanour of the candidates are assessed. It is where, like at a job interview, past achievements matter more than future promises laced with exaggerations. After all, these six are competing to turn around the fortunes of a country long on promise and short on achievements.

The audience of a debate will comprise of the ‘objective’ voter who understands issues will almost certainly side with a leader seen “to have a better grasp of the issues.”

That is because the debate will also expose the lies that politicians peddle around. Like the one that their differences are irreconcilable.

The audience will be looking out for the camaraderie, the lies that bind them. It would be refreshing to see Mr Raila Odinga and Mr Uhuru Kenyatta give each other a bear hug. If the two can do that, what would stop a Kikuyu and a Luo embracing each other and treating the political rhetoric as just that, not a life-long enmity?

For the politicians say Kenya is bigger than any of them, and yet consistently take the low road.

Political dust up

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, Vikram Sinha writing for the Times of India says debates are quite useful and disparages India’s politics “where facts and logic of governance are rarely allowed to get in the way of a good political dust up and where emotion appeal and perception often matter far more than reality.”

It is only on a moderated live show where a politician can square up to reality, he says. A debate is moving away from the easily excitable masses at a rally. It is moving away from the man and woman at Uhuru Park who get wowed by vitendawili, kusema na kutenda and other rhetorical statements about opponents.

A live debate with cameras rolling and a nation watching provides an unlikely setting for the “anything goes” kind of a politician.