Forget the big crowds, presidential debates saviours of democracy

Debates are a political tradition we as a country must embrace. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Apart from the presidential debate, we must give credit to successful gubernatorial debates through which voters had a chance to listen to the plans of the aspiring leaders. However, the disparagement with which we have treated presidential debates is worrying.

Take presidential and gubernatorial debates seriously, or like a famous Kikuyu Benga musician Makibi James would say, "wait for the hyenas that will eat you!"

Regardless of the political divide, one is in, debates are sites for expanding the democratic space. Therefore, we must demystify the significance of this space where citizens have a chance to appraise their prospective leaders so that the people can make informed decisions on the ballot. Is that too much to ask? Let me explain!

In 2017, president Uhuru snubbed the presidential debate. Politicians, all now on the other side of the political divide, defended the move and said debating would have amounted to a waste of time.

The then Jubilee government propagandists claimed that Raila Odinga’s NASA owned the company that organises debates through proxy. Therefore, since what goes around comes around, they are the ones on the receiving end five years later.

It was an act of impunity for the incumbent president to boycott a public space organised by the Fourth Estate. He abandoned the then NASA principal Raila Odinga to have a lone debate. It was then that the site lost meaning. It could have amounted to a political strategy, just like the 2022 snub.

Still, we must agree that it is not in the people's best interest - the owners of the state on whom sovereignty is constitutionally established.

But he was elected, you say? The fact that he was elected does not make it acceptable. Even Raila Odinga has a high chance of being elected the fifth president. The most escapist argument that Kenyans have been treated to is that the debate has no impact on voter turnout. I call that purely political selfishness. This is why.

The Media Council of Kenya released a report following the deputy presidential debate indicating that 34 million Kenyans watched the debate. We know we have about 22 million registered voters. It is selfish for politicians to think that only registered voters have a right to listen to would-be leaders. Every Kenyan, registered voter or not, including minors, have a right to know the political plans of our leaders.

From the political point of view, it was strategically advantageous for Raila to snub the debate - it helped him to retain his voter base while allowing Ruto to take risks on the 'frying pan'.

On the other side, Raila lost a chance to speak to his followers and thus denied them their right to hear their political celeb. Suppose Ruto wasn’t fit to share a podium with Raila because of integrity issues, as Ruto’s passionate disparagers in Azimio claim.

In that case, they should have negotiated with debate organisers to have Raila come alone at his time and speak to his people. That could have regained the glory of the debate as a platform for mwananchi to sift real issues from their leaders.

Therefore, regardless of all the politics that have gone into the debates, it is a political tradition we as a country must embrace. The gubernatorial debates that our media organised in collaboration with different stakeholders across the 47 counties are an indication that the country is taking a break from rallies, which are arenas for political narratives, propaganda and misinformation.

The current generation of voters has a right to access information. The benefits that the public space (debates) offers supersede the political hubris we tend to believe. Therefore, any effort to kill this saviour of democracy should be discouraged and measures put in place to grow it to maturity.

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