Election debates should be about issues rather than personalities

Election debates should be about issues rather than personalities

BY ALEX OWITI

In a few weeks, Kenyans will be making the most important decision of electing the leaders they want through a ballot system. This will be the first election that will see youths born when the late Mwai Kibaki got into power in 2002, vote for the first time. 

They were born when Kibaki took over power from one of Africa’s longest dynasty, President Daniel Moi. And for the next decade, Kibaki’s regime was praised for salvaging the economy from collapsing and returning its prosperity. Even after his demise, he is praised for exemplary performance since Kenya became independent and ruled by his two previous predecessors.

Let’s return to the 2022 election debates. Debates are a critical tool for gauging the level of preparedness by politicians to take up the leadership mantle. Debates are similar to job interviews as they interrogate your ability to do the job based on your competency and skills as well as your attitude and temperaments.

Following the recent deputy presidential debates, I have a few things to point out. First of all, debates should be issue-based rather than a personalized event for settling scores. Debaters should understand that the platform they are using is not similar to outdoor campaigns where there are no rules of decorum on what they say against their opponents.

As much as it is important to interrogate the character of an opponent on integrity issues, it should be based on facts rather than propaganda. I’m aware that politics is about propaganda but it needs to be done in a dignified manner even though one once said that politics is a game for the pigs; if you don’t want to get dirty don’t jump in it.

During a debate, the politician should stick to selling their agenda which is either an ideology, or based on their manifesto. They need to articulate the issues with vigour and intellect that creates no doubt in the ability to deliver what they are addressing.

Currently, Kenya is grappling with issues of debt, high cost of living, unemployment, low exports due to low production as well as high taxes. Kenyans would like to hear the tactics that the debaters will use to resolve their current problems, not personalised attacks.

To avoid a focus on attacking individuals, which most politicians think is the best way to win a debate, the media moderating the debate should take responsibility for steering the debate and ensuring the debate stays on the cause. Failure to guide the debate can leave to a street fight that will sink the call to action on issues that are citizen-based and need to address.

Kamala Harris, Mike Pence debate had a lot of weight. The debate was more issue-based. Pence was naturally calm and his methodical style served as a steady counterpoint to Trump’s earlier aggression. On the occasions when he did interrupt, however, Harris was ready.

On the coronavirus pandemic that was the opening topic of the debate, Harris spent most of her time on the attack. While Pence, on the other hand, focused mostly on the defense. Harris’s was mainly making reference to statistics – citing 210,000 Americans dead, and charging the Trump administration with “ineptitude” and “incompetence”.

When the topic turned to the environment, it was his turn to go on the attack. Biden had expanded his plan to address climate change since the Democratic primaries. Harris was an original sponsor of the Green New Deal climate proposal, which set ambitious targets for carbon emission reductions.

On the other hand, Pence warned that the Green New Deal would “crush American energy” and accused Biden of wanting to “abolish” fossil fuels and ban fracking, which Harris said was false. In one awkward moment, he dodged saying climate change was man-made or a threat to the planet, merely stating more than once he would “follow the science”.

When it came to the systemic race issue that bedeviled Trump’s Administration, there were sharp exchanges regarding race and law enforcement. In addressing the matter that seemed to have been a failure in Trump’s administration, Pence tried to quickly pivot from a discussion of discrimination and excessive force by law enforcement into a condemnation of the sometimes-violent protests that have occurred in US cities. He said he trusted the justice system and that suggesting the nation is systemically racist is an insult to the men and women in law enforcement.

Harris had the most powerful rejoinder. She noted Trump’s difficulties based on his presidential debate – in clearly and concisely condemning white supremacists, concluding, “this is who we have as president”.

According to Anthony Zurcher, Harris, who was a presidential candidate, tried to prove that she can be a capable standard-bearer for the Democrats once Joe Biden exits the political stage. When given the chance, she spoke about her upbringing and background, taking the opportunity to introduce herself to a larger US audience. 

Unlike Pence, she frequently talked directly to the camera – conscious that while she was trying to score points, it was equally important for her to connect with the audience.

In short, the media not only play a critical role in providing the platform for debaters to sell their agenda, but also own the issues in discussion and provide a direction. It is important to research and bring in comparisons rather than ask debaters to just respond to the question at hand about a particular topic. Contextualizing topics comes with experience in the areas of questioning. 

For instance, it will be important to have a moderator who is good with matters of health, economics, governance, and even agriculture. That way you can question the debater with authenticity and credibility.

Lastly, debates are about the people who are going to vote. As organizers, do a small dipstick to ensure that the issues that need to be addressed are captured and given priority. Otherwise, it becomes a sideshow as we would say in Swahili, “Gumzo Mitaani.”

I still feel there is room for improvement – a debate should be well organized and
 managed.   

The writer is a communication expert

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