Boycott of presidential debates not good for democracy, accountability

The decision by presidential candidates Uhuru Kenyatta of Jubilee Party and National Super Alliance (NASA) leader Raila Odinga to pull out of the presidential debates puts a damper on the highly anticipated media and public event. Without the two leading candidates, the event is a damp squib, meaningless, and will not attract interest from voters and the public.

It is especially worrying that the organisers, the Debates Media Limited, reportedly failed to ‘consult’ and agree with the candidates not only on the dates but also format of the debate. The organisers, however, insist the candidates were consulted. Still, the candidates and the parties, especially the Jubilee Party, see it differently and seem to suggest that there is an ulterior motive behind the debates and conversations.

Senior politicians

Consider, for example, the views of Jubilee Party’s Secretary-General Raphael Tuju who dismissed the debates as “conmanship” organised by ‘unknown’ people whose intentions are unclear. If we believe Tuju, then the organisers are dishonest, naïve and incompetent particularly because they did not expect such senior politicians to attend the event merely because they had been announced in the media or because of the perceived interest from the mostly middle class Kenyans both at home and in the diaspora.

To Tuju, and by extension, the Jubilee Party, the “debate is being organised through advertisements in the media by some people we do not know. They went ahead to give the dates of the debate with no consultation with the president. They have not contacted State House or the party. We do not know what the ground rules are and we won’t participate. This whole thing smells of conmanship. Because at the bare minimum, they were supposed to get in touch with the campaign to fix a day. On whose behalf are the organisers acting, and what mandate do they have to organise the debate?”

Friendly and emphatic

Such strong words from a former mediaman who, at the very least, is expected to be friendly and empathetic towards the media. On its part, NASA simply said they would not participate in the debate under the current proposed format and stipulation although they asked President Kenyatta “to be open to debating Raila Odinga on the issues affecting Kenyans in the present circumstance.”

Simply put, NASA would only participate if President Uhuru does. This would, undoubtedly, be a more interesting debate given the fact that one of these two candidates is most likely to be the next president. Whether President Kenyatta accedes to the request is another issue although indications are that this will unlikely happen in the current circumstances.

The views above demonstrate the little regard politicians have for the media particularly when they are at the mercy of those asking questions or interrogating them, and thus not in control of the agenda. Yet the same politicians often covet the media, and are known to crave their attention when seeking to advance certain views, ideas or positions.

Granted, the decision to boycott the events may be informed by the fact that the debates, as I have argued previously, may be meaningless to the profiles and positions of the ‘main’ candidates, and, more importantly, their vote tally.

Furthermore, the debates are merely media events held in a charged political environment characterised by bad blood between different political camps. Besides, elections are not won or lost on media platforms, and available evidence suggests that few people change their positions as a consequence of their candidates’ performance.

In the context of elections, the agenda setting theory holds that, according to scholars Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw, the media determine and push the public agenda, what voters consider critical issues that may help inform and influence public opinion and, ultimately (rather ideally though), political outcomes. In essence then, the media is considered an agent of representative democracy.

Without indulging in media and political polemics, there is some truth in the notion that the media of mass communication is critical in Kenya’s political landscape, and this is the reason why politicians and other actors covet the space and platform through which they can reach as many voters as possible.

Only that Kenyan politics, as indeed elsewhere, is tricky and people (voters!) do not really subscribe to what is offered in the media. Besides, haven’t we heard of particular agendas being pushed by certain media, the fake news, the alternative truths, and the trust crisis the media faces?

Plans for the country

Whatever the case, the debates are important platforms for public determination of the candidates’ understanding of issues, their grasp of policy, and ability to articulate their positions or views on important matters.

Thus the media and public debates gives the leaders the opportunity to, for instance, expound on their manifestos, and plans for the country. And by exposing themselves to media and public interrogation (and sometimes embarrassment as was the case with Jubilee candidate Mike Sonko during the Nairobi Gubernatorial Debate on KTN News last Monday night), they demonstrate their willingness and ability to respond to public and voter questions and concerns.

It is through such activities that voters, who are unable to attend the candidates’ public campaign meetings, know their candidates, their positions and ability to defend them. Granted, even though oratory and good debating skills are important (think of Miguna Miguna in the KTN News’ gubernatorial debate!), they must be tempered with facts, empathy, emotional intelligence and vision.

Thus, the debates would have given the media an opportunity to help cultivate transformational and inspirational, good, ethical, competent, clean, responsible and accountable leaders capable of taking the country forward, and dealing with numerous maladies, particularly corruption and its effects on society.

Unfortunately, Kenya’s politics and democracy are hardly determined by public and media performances, leadership and management skills, integrity, morality, competence, and ability to communicate and debate but factors like ethnicity, mere demagoguery, and ability mobilise (mostly monetary) resources to manipulate public opinion and sometimes ‘steal’ votes in our ‘adversarial’ and competitive politics and ‘democracy’.

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