It will be 'political indiscipline' to avoid the presidential debate

DP William Ruto eulogizes Mwai Kibaki at Nyayo Stadium, Nairobi, April 29, 2022.  [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

I have seen another political arrogance in Kenya - presidential candidates are slowly shutting down the presidential debate - a metaphorical equivalent of a presidential interview.

This is not only inimical to this democracy-entrenching event that started in 2013 but is proof of candidates who don't want to be held accountable.

The scare that William Ruto might snub the upcoming presidential debate, a decision that might influence Raila Odinga to withdraw, is 'political indiscipline'. It is also a display of how politicians disrespect our media, an agent of representative democracy.

I will not in this article belabour the claims they have on media bias - an issue that the presidential debates secretariat has responded to satisfactorily.

Dr Ruto should be the last person to avoid public debates - he is an orator and an excellent debater. Moreover, he's silver-tongued - he can convince a snake out of its hole for rattling. If his astuteness is something to go by, then the 2022 presidential debate is crafted for his benefit. But away from Ruto, are presidential debates helpful? Lovers of democracy will say yes, but political materialists will say no!

According to a CNN article entitled, Why America needs presidential debates now more than ever, on September 17, 2020, professors of communication, Diana Carlin and Mitchell McKinney, argued that “it is unlikely that anyone would make a hiring decision without interviewing.”

This is a repeat of a nonconformity behaviour that Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila started in 2017. On July 9, 2017, my senior, George Nyabuga, decried, in an article published in The Standard, entitled Boycott of presidential debates not good for democracy, accountability, that the then decision of Uhuru and Raila to snub presidential debate is inimical to democracy. I won’t repeat what Dr Nyabuga detailed then because the same leviathan is what we are struggling with five years later - political arrogance.

Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga snubbed the 2017 presidential debate. [File, Standard]

According to the controversial Infotrack poll results released on Wednesday, June 8, 2022, neither Raila nor Ruto meets the threshold of 50 plus one to be declared president-elect. All candidates, including the fringe candidates, add up to 80 per cent, leaving a whopping 20 per cent of voters undecided. It is these undecideds that presidential debates are said to target.

While it is not solid to defend the presidential debates as rich fields for harvesting votes—it is a platform for the candidates to think through their manifesto. Nyabuga argues that the debates help the public determine if their candidates understand issues, their grasp of policy and their ability to "articulate their positions or views on important matters." It is a platform for our presidential candidates to learn - the 2013 debate threw all the undecideds to Mohammed Abduba Dida whom many Kenyans saw for the first time on the 2013 presidential debate.

Dida defeated Martha Karua, James ole Kiyiapi and Paul Muite - who were mainstream politicians. The little-known teacher and candidate on Alliance for Real Change party almost defeated Peter Kenneth. That’s why I can’t agree with those who want to argue that presidential debates are insignificant.

Mohammed Abduba Dida. [Boniface Okendo, Standard] 

Moreover, the electorate expect to see candidates engage and articulate the contents of the papers that hired strategists wrote for them. They must learn one or two things they promise so that we can hold them accountable in future.

Furthermore, a presidential debate is a 'come, let us reason together’ invite by the electorate, through mass media. Even when it brings few voters, it sets the country on a conversation around issues. 

In conclusion, why are our presidential candidates avoiding these debates? First, it’s simply political pride. They think they’re hunched too low to debate with fringe candidates. Secondly, they're unwilling to engage mwananchi in a platform they have no control of - they fear being moderated. Finally, they prefer freestyle politicking, speaking to voters instead of talking with voters.

-Dr Ndonye is a lecturer in the School of Music and Media at Kabarak University