Leaders differ over impact of Raila Odinga's decision to skip debate

Thirty-four million Kenyans watched Mr Odinga's running mate Martha Karua versus Mr Ruto's Rigathi Gachagua deputy presidential debate which aired last week. Questions abound on whether Mr Odinga gained or lost by opting out.

ODM Secretary General Edwin Sifuna thinks not. He said debates do little to sway voters. "People have already made up their minds. Those who wanted to vote for Dr Ruto will still vote for him and those who wanted to vote for Mr Odinga will still do so," Mr Sifuna said.

Mumias East MP Benjamin Washiali said debates are the only platform upon which the public can audit one's promises. "We have an economic crisis and the public wants to know how the candidates plan to fix it."

The MP said the debate would have an impact on undecided voters, who a recent opinion poll by Trends and Insights for Africa (Tifa) placed at 10 per cent. The poll had suggested that Mr Odinga and Dr Ruto would fail to hit the 50-per-cent-plus-one-vote constitutional threshold. The survey suggested the Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya candidate would beat his UDA rival by 42 against 39 per cent.

And hence convincing the 10 per cent undecided voters would do both candidates and their political aspirations some good. While the current campaign season has seen the leading contenders square it out more on the issues than on personal attacks, ethnicity remains a significant consideration by voters.

But has Kenya's politics matured to the extent that voters would make their choice depending on a debate? University don Herman Manyora thinks the majority would not. "But the critical undecided mass can make a decision after a debate."

Political scientist Edward Kisiangani says there is a sizeable increase in the number of Kenyans who are highly educated, and who want to listen to the solutions the candidates are offering.

"Media houses directed all their coveted frequencies to the debate and he was too big to attend." He said Mr Odinga also lost the chance to "sway" some of Dr Ruto's supporters.