Experts- Presidential debates all about name-calling, have no effect on Kenyan voters

Kenyans will be trooping to polling stations on August 9. One of the political activities that attend and spice up the election cycle is the spectacle called presidential debates.

Some political commentators have called these debates the theatre of the absurd. Televised presidential debates in Kenya started in 2013 and have had a chequered history.

In recent weeks, Deputy President William Ruto has fallen out with the media, accusing them of impartiality in coverage and threatening to withdraw from the upcoming presidential debate. Roots Party Leader George Wajackoyah has also threatened not to attend should he be relegated to debating with Agano Party leader David Mwaure Wahiga.

So, what is a candidate debate? It is a neutral, dignified forum where presidential candidates or others competing for elected office respond to the same questions, as posed by voters, a moderator or other debaters. Listeners are able to compare the candidates’ positions on issues.

Candidates mutually agree on rules, mostly regarding response and speaking time, to ensure fairness. Debates normally include some interaction among candidates through rebuttals or follow-on questions.

JF Kennedy and Richard Nixon were the first to formally debate for a national audience in 1960, and Nixon was so jaded by the experience that it was a full 16 years before another set of candidates, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, agreed to a series of three debates in 1976. Presidential debates have come to be hallmarks of the modern presidential campaign across the globe.

At inception, the debates were intended to inform the public of the candidates’ specific policies. In addition, they were seen as the last opportunity to move voters before the election, especially those undecided.

Over time, opinion has been divided as to the exact value of presidential debates. Is there any viable evidence that they do significantly swing the election outcome? The answer is normally they don’t. In fact, by the time the debate is held, voters have already taken their positions. The debate may swing undecided voters and that is about all.

So, who exactly is the biggest beneficiary of the so-hyped presidential debates? Are the presidential debates intended to inform Wanjiku, Naliaka, Achieng, Kadzo and Jepchirchir or are these merely fodder for the media?

This year’s presidential debate is scheduled for today, July 26, barely two weeks before the election. This is rather late in the day since most voters are already informed of all the candidates’ policies through TV, radio, internet, or the newspaper

Moreover, in Kenya, our voting patterns are embedded with strong tribal and regional loyalties. Even if a candidate were to give a razzmatazz performance, it is unlikely to move the support base of the opponent.

In any case, party affiliation, whether Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya or Kenya Kwanza or even Roots Party or Agano party, makes voters more likely to be more critical of the opposing candidate during the debate while reassuring them their party has the better candidate.

Therefore, most political scientists and sociologists have come to the conclusion that, as practised, presidential debates do not have a dramatic effect on voters. In fact, political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien concluded that, “The best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict before the debates.” In other words, the outcome of the polls will not be impacted by the debates.

Besides, debates will not count for much if they turn into name-calling spectacles where candidates shout at each other and insult each other, albeit metaphorically. What this does is urge voters to continue supporting the side they were supporting prior to the debates. But we can do better.

Hopefully, this time round, the presidential and indeed other debates will bear democratic dividends by addressing issues — not persons or ethnicity. These debates should contribute to and nurture and enhance political tolerance, constructive dialogue and service to the people.

More importantly, our elections tend to take place in a divided election environment. These presidential debates should be an opportunity for the presidential candidates to show that, despite their differences, they can treat each other cordially and with decorum even as they disagree on the issues.

Let the candidates also use this opportune time to articulate policy issues they may never have focused on previously.

It has been argued that people vote emotionally rather than logically. Thus, presidential debates should be educational.

In an era where two weeks to the election we still have 15 per cent undecided voters, debates afford candidates the opportunity to provide informative, concise summaries of their major policy positions and viewpoints in a single evening.

Research has shown that voters learn from debates. After watching a single debate, viewers are more accurately able to describe the platforms of the candidates and this often prompts them to seek out additional information about the candidates.

Modern presidential debates also provide one of the few indicators as to how the candidates might respond under pressure. Whereas the vast majority of modern campaign events are scripted and edited affairs, debates require candidates to be able to think on their feet and be able to respond to unanticipated events.

In this sense, they serve as national “job interviews” for the office. If a candidate gets easily flustered trying to answer a simple question in a debate, it suggests that the candidate may not be able to handle the rigours of the pressure and unpredictability of the presidency.

Debates also force candidates to do what they should be doing anyway if they want to be president: know something and be able to speak intelligently about a wide range of issues. While the questions from moderators are often predictable, they sometimes throw curve balls that reward the candidates who are better prepared and informed to speak on a wide range of topics.

For the common Kenyan, this is a great opportunity. As candidates debate, we become ceased of their policy statements and positions as well as their campaign promises, which become public record. Civic groups and media should use these records to hold them to account once they assume office.

However, modern debates also serve to exacerbate our sound-bite political culture and they aren’t able to provide an entirely comprehensive means of evaluating the candidates’ fitness for the office of the presidency. Ultimately, sophisticated voters should certainly take debates into consideration when making their choice, but they should have a healthy awareness of that which debates can – and cannot – ultimately accomplish.

So, do presidential debates have democratic dividends or are they the political theatre of the absurd devoid of purpose where we showcase all that is wrong with us as a society and a democracy? The jury is still out.


– Edwin Wanjawa is a lecturer at Pwani University