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Presidential debates and aftermath: What they reveal about our leaders

This was the third televised debate for presidential candidates in Kenya’s independent history. [File, Standard]

The debates for the presidency are now behind us, and nine days from today Kenyans will have the final chance to decide who their leaders will be for the next five years.

Convened by the Media Council of Kenya, this was the third televised debate for presidential candidates in Kenya’s independent history.

Regardless of the boycott by some of the candidates in 2017 and on Tuesday night, the fact that the debates went on as scheduled is a huge milestone in the nation’s democracy.

From where I sit, this is a firm statement to the political elite that it is not within themselves to dictate the country’s political and development agenda only when it serves them right.

Sustaining this tradition will eventually force even they that think are ‘mightier than thou’ into submission of the will of the people.

Referencing from history, the first televised presidential debate was done on November 4, 1956 between Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Smith acting as surrogates.

Future of democracy

Four years later, on September 26, 1960, the real presidential candidates Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat John F Kennedy faced off in the first of a series of three televised debates.

The post-debate media opinion poll showed mixed outcomes on the winner among those who listened on radio and those who followed it on TV. Kennedy was elected the president that year. 

An article by the Young African Leaders Initiative dated February 15, 2015, estimates that at least 60 countries around the world have adopted debates among electoral candidates as a tradition.

The National Democratic Institute, a US think tank says that debates help a candidate prepare for campaigns, informs voters, reduce political tensions, promotes accountability and highlights the health of a democracy. 

However, the question as to whether debates sway voters towards a particular candidate is open for debate.

George Friedman, in an article on October 4, 2012, after President Barack Obama debated Governor Mitt Romney on foreign policy, argues that the debate wasn’t likely going to change opinion of voters.

On this debate, opinion converged to the fact that Obama was not in his finest element, and thus the loser on that night.

According to Friedman, the best that a debate does is to test a candidate’s coolness under pressure and their ability to articulate thoughts vaguely connected to the question asked, while convincing viewers that he or she is both personable and serious.

This argument takes the view that it is practically impossible for any candidate to coherently elaborate a policy question or a detailed plan of action in a debate as they are currently structured.

On average, a candidate gets 90 seconds to respond to questions or offer rebuttal to opponent’s assertions over a 90 minute session.

In the Kenyan case, the candidates were offered a maximum of 120 seconds to respond. Thus, the primary objective of a debate is to test ability to respond quickly to a complex issue that is technically impossible to answer within the short time available.

This is in essence the genius behind leadership and not how intelligent a candidate is. Given such background, it is plausible to ask whether Kenyan debates for the presidency are a worthwhile endeavour.

What lessons can we deduce from the behaviour of the candidates?

It is irrelevant as to whether the deputy president’s debate or the presidential debate swayed any voters in one way or the other.

The fact that they went on as scheduled is a big victory for the people of Kenya and a great inheritance that our generation has set for those to come after us.

 Victory for the people

We must remove our hats for the debate organizers for not bowing to veiled bully tendencies from ‘the larger than thou’ candidates. In a twist of irony, it was the solo candidate on July 24, 2017, who boycotted the debate in 2022. President Uhuru Kenyatta boycotted the debate in 2017.

Today, both men are on the same political formation with sole debater in 2022 being the deputy of the 2017 boycotter.

From a quick scan of social media reactions, it would appear at least majority of the viewers had already made their minds.

There is also no evidence that the debates have significantly swayed votes, save for teacher Mohamed Abduba Diba who exceeded expectations after the February 2013 presidential debate.

What is undeniable, however, is that history will judge harshly the character and person of those that has chosen to undermine the wheels of democracy.

Henceforth, they lack the moral authority to lecture anyone about democracy. The job of the president demands of the leader the highest regard for the people, not just opponents.

Great political leaders are known for leading their people through domestic or external crises with grace and character, or setting traditions and/or honouring best practice traditions set by those that have served before them. It is sacrilegious to dishonour a people’s agenda when it sounds inconvenient on the part of the leader.

Reflections

That not withstanding, the debates offered important lessons that we can take going forward.

First, this was a great opportunity for the people to get to know important aspects of the men and women who have offered themselves to lead them. In a country where those in power demand the hoi polloi to worship the ground they walk on, these debates have offered a rare moment for the candidates to open up on issues within their closets.

Secondly, the debates have offered a window for the masses to see and understand how well those in power have a grasp of the problems that bedevil them daily.

On this account alone, the leaders have scored poorly across at both the national and the selected governor race debates that I have watched.

For instance, the main problems in every poor and middleclass household in this election is the high cost of living, uncertainty on the CBC education system, disease burden, unemployment among the youth and low farm and labour productivity.

At the macroeconomic level, the debt burden, fiscal deficit and siphoning of billions of shillings from public coffers into personal development funds top the list.

Yet, none of the presidential candidates or their deputies could demonstrate a basic appreciation of the magnitute of the problems in the time given to them during the debates.

They couldn’t even tell the price of bread or kerosene despite having traversed the urban, peri-urban and the villages for months while seeking for votes. Common sense dictates that a leader must take the initiative to understand the needs, desires and aspirations of his/her subjects.

Finally, in order to sustain the momentum for the big debate, I have had this strange thought that a surrogate candidate should be introduced should a ‘big fish’ boycott a debate next time.

This way, the surrogate could help rebalance the discussion, offer credible rebuttals to unsupported statements from opponents and create a platform to nurture future presidents on live national TV.

To the organisers of the 2027 presidential debate, allow me apply for the surrogate role in advance should any one of the big fish boycott it next time, inshallah.