Political debates in Kenya: are they useful or empty media spectacles?

Presidential debate at Catholic University, 2017. [Boniface Okendo, Standard] 

It is a few months before the general election. That means it is time for the theatrical, skeleton-revealing spectacle also known as the political debate.

Televised political debates in Kenya started in 2013 and have had a chequered history.

In the first debates, eight presidential aspirants met over two sessions that were broadcast on multiple television and radio stations. The sessions drew in millions of listeners and viewers.

However, one study argued that the debates were more a performance that failed to provide the electorate with enough information on which candidate to elect.

In 2017, there was a televised debate between the eight candidates for Nairobi governor. They traded barbs, accusing each other of corruption, shady business deals, crime and weak leadership.

The live audience loved it, laughing at the particularly potent allegations.

Nairobi voters eventually elected Mike Sonko, a flashy politician whose popularity can partly be traced to his public displays of generosity. These include providing free public services, such as garbage collection, that are otherwise the role of local government.

During the televised debate, Sonko was accused of having a criminal record. Over the course of his five-year term, he was charged with gross misconduct. He eventually handed over the running of key functions in the county to the national government.

Televised political debates in Kenya started in 2013 and have had a chequered history. [Boniface Okendo, Standard] 

Political debates are organised, moderated and broadcast mostly by commercial news media. These platforms have played a leading role in proposing, organising and broadcasting them.

As the 2017 Nairobi governor race showed, a political debate is helpful in presenting candidates to the citizens and allows some exposure to their backgrounds, plans, possible strengths and weaknesses.

But, as useful as the political debate was in subjecting the Nairobi governor candidates to citizen scrutiny, it was not enough to change residents’ minds about Sonko.

If a debate is the citizen’s primary source of information about the candidates running for a particular seat, that is too much weight for a two-hour event to carry. Debates are culminating events, held as an election season comes to an end. They cannot replace the electorate’s need for the granular, mundane, day-to-day information about candidates and what they stand for.

What can go wrong

Election cycles around the world are seen as tangible evidence of democracy. They allow citizens to elect leaders whose views will enable accountable and useful representation.

In principle, the political debate is a forum to showcase these aspiring leaders’ visions.

It is a lofty goal, however, given that in every general election, the voter elects six representatives. These are the president, governor, senator, women’s representative, member of parliament and ward representative.

In 2013, the political debates focused on presidential and deputy presidential candidates. The debate between deputy presidential candidates was co-organised by a coalition of churches and a private university.

In 2017, more political debates were planned as independent players got involved.

The Kenya Alliance of Resident Associations, for instance, partnered to organise debates among aspirants for seven county governor seats.

This year, attempts were made to assess the ability of community and local language media to get involved in carrying out debates. The idea was that these forums would focus on bringing together aspiring governors, senators and women’s representatives. Community and local language media platforms tend to provide information for particular geographic zones. Their regional reach works for the seats for which they are being assessed.

Televised political debates in Kenya started in 2013 and have had a chequered history. [Boniface Okendo, Standard] 

But the idea has run into trouble, provoking a spat between sections of mainstream media and ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru.

The issue revolved around the government’s appointment by gazette notice of a working group. They were given the job of assessing the ability of community and local language media to hold political debates.

Beyond the differences of opinion over the setting up of the working group, a number of issues arise.

First, who will accommodate the need for information about MP aspirants? Or the thousands who will vie for the 1,450 ward representative seats, particularly just months before the elections?

Second, as dramatic and exciting as the debates are, candidates don’t always participate. In 2017, there were governor candidates in several counties who didn’t show up.

That same year, the incumbent president and his main opponent declined to attend their debates, citing event format concerns.

Third, debates are usually held at the end of the political campaign season. The number of candidates and the format of debates don’t usually allow citizens to gain a sufficient understanding of each aspirant’s agenda.

Making it right 

As governance researcher John Ahere observed, democracy in East Africa is nuanced. The appearance of democracy is not always the same as its lived reality.

Citizens are often treated as bystanders in democratic governance – valuable once every five years when aspiring leaders seek their votes. The rest of the time, citizens have little say over why poverty is widespread, for instance, or why the theft of public resources remains pervasive.

The performance of elected officials, therefore, needs sustained coverage beyond the election. Once the election is over, there is an opportunity for all media to commit to extensively covering the work of all legislative and executive leaders during their five-year terms. By doing this, news media would be showing its value as an institution within a democracy.