Presidential debate is a pointless charade borrowed from the US

Our enslaved African minds have over-glorified American culture. This minute, there is a poor Kenyan somewhere, almost choking on his tongue because he is struggling to sound American. Not only are we echoing accents, we are also parroting music, imitating food and mirroring lifestyle.

But hey, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with cultural influence - after all, the world is ‘glocalizing’. There is nothing wrong, except of course, when foreign norms are ‘copy-pasted’, and aped without consideration of cultural contexts and nuances.

And the problem is that we are applying this ‘monkey-see, monkey-do’ approach to our politics. To varying extents, we have americanised the way we carry out and deliver analysis, how we execute and use opinion polling, how the media relays election results and of course how we have made presidential debates requisite in an electoral cycle.

That is why, on the day of the presidential debate, I recommend that the President go and campaign in Bondo instead of wasting his and our time taking part in this borrowed charade. And there are many other reasons why he shouldn’t participate.

Verbal gimmickry

Firstly, televised political debates are mainly about entertainment value, not substance and content. These debate circuses seem more designed for performances by clowns and acrobats, than for productive discourse by serious candidates.

This is why, in 2013, Abduba Dida rose to national fame using verbal gimmickry. The only other revelations from that first presidential debate were that Uhuru Kenyatta is articulate, Peter Kenneth is colourless, Raila Odinga is verbally inept under pressure and Martha Karua is Martha Karua.

More recently, the wisecracking Miguna gained plenty of entertainment mileage during the gubernatorial debate. Unfortunately for him, the tickled audience will not translate their laughter into votes. The votes will instead be cast in favour of those who performed dismally in the debate debacle; Evans Kidero and Mike Sonko. End of story. And this leads us to the second reason.

The electorate’s decision-making is not determined on debate lecterns. Our grim reality is that ethnicity predominantly shapes voting patterns. Pure and simple. All other secondary vote drivers are articulated on rally podiums, road-side stands, online platforms and manifestos.

And this is where Uhuru and Raila have been continuously debating over the last few months, in fact, over the last four years. The voters who have already made up their minds are not going to be swayed by a 1 hour 30 minute episode in which the candidates regurgitate the same issues they have been singing about on the campaign trail. And which are beamed on our TV screens every night anyway.

Speaking of TV screens. The critical demographic that forms the electoral numbers; the multitude that will determine the winner of the elections, will not watch the presidential debate. These debates are for the media’s benefit, and the entertained few who will pointlessly pontificate over the demeanour, style, behaviour, and jabs that the candidates exchanged onstage. It will, in the end, be reviewed as a performance, and not a politically functional process.

Finally, the presidential debates may not just end up being useless, they may end up being downright counterproductive. In a country where ‘hate-speech’ has been on the rise, setting eight candidates loose on live TV is like exposing a live wire. If the session is poorly moderated, ‘fringe candidates’ in particular grab the platform to gain publicity, and it doesn’t matter to them whether they present offensive or harmful views. They don’t necessarily care if they win or lose the debate.

Even seasoned candidates, like Baba, fall into this sensationalist trap. Let us not forget that he has suffered ‘foot in mouth’ in the past few months - and had to hold a string of press conferences to defend his antagonising positions. If not carefully moderated, live TV is unforgiving - and can raise political temperatures for no good earthly reason.

While presidential debates are in themselves not the worst idea, they must be reconfigured to suit our context, norms, realities and purposes. And when the media is skewed, the exercise becomes at best pointless, and at worst volatile.

That is why once again, I urge the President to keep working the campaign trail, and leave the debate to the peripheral candidates - those who are chasing their 15 minutes of fame.

The writer is a PhD candidate in Political Economy at SMC University and a Research Fellow at Fort Hall School of Government. [email protected]