Presidential debate should not have more than five candidates
By Maurice N. Amutabi
I agree with pundits and political analysts who have suggested that presidential debates in Kenya do not matter. There are many Kenyans who have already predetermined whom they will vote for come March 4, 2013. The reasons for this action range from ethnicity and political persuasion, personal interests and political recruitment. It is very hard for one to sell his ideas against this type of deterministic electorate. The debate becomes one where followers are only interested in seeing how their candidate performs against others,
Many people do not know that in every American presidential election, there are usually more than 10 candidates, but only the Democratic Party and Republican Party candidates are allowed to debate on national television. This is because the other parties are pretenders and are not likely to produce a winning candidate and they all know that they will lose anyway. They therefore appear on the ballot for other reasons other than the express intention to occupy White House. Libertarians, Greens, Socialists and others appear on the ballot but remain marginal on discussions of leadership in the nation.
In 2004 and 2008 presidential debates, Libertarian candidate Ralf Nader pleaded with national TV networks to allow him space and time on the debate floor, but this request was rejected. In the second debate between George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry, Nader threatened to enter the stage by force but was stopped at the entrance by security. It makes sense to have as fewer candidates on stage as possible in order to allow them to say as much as possible about their policies and what they believe in.
The benefit of having fewer and likely winners to debate became apparent in 2004 when one fringe TV station (Oxygen) allowed fringe candidates a chance to debate each other on national television. It was, to say the least embarrassing and a disaster. The debate quickly degenerated into name calling and trash talking, as well as grandstanding, with some candidates calling for legalization of marijuana and such stuff. Some of the candidates could not even pronounce the names of their parties, while others were clearly inebriated. Majority were bimbos and bozos who should have been in mental institutions or some low level clown shows. It is against this background that I want to express my fears about the quality of the proposed presidential debates in Kenya where about a dozen candidates, even fringe ones, have been invited to participate.
My suggestion would be that only candidates who have polled more than 1% in national opinion polls should be allowed to participate in the debate. There are some candidates whom every Kenyan knows cannot win a presidential election but who keep running around and appearing on FM radio and television talk shows. There have been all kinds of jokers, some parading themselves before cameras and breaking into tears, while others wonder why they are chased by police when they drink changaa. I could not imagine Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi, Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka and Eldoret North MP William Ruto on the same stage with some of these shady characters who have declared interest in the presidency. The number has gone down with the CORD, Jubiliee, Amani and Eagle coalitions represented by Raila Odinga, Uhuru Kenyatta, Musalia Mudavadi and Peter Kenneth respectively.
The debate moderator should be an experienced hand and not greenhorns such as the ones we have interviewing leading politicians and afraid to ask questions. It is embarrassing when one listens to some of our politicians on the campaign trail. Many of them require basic asking follow up questions as well as probing for more answers.
The debates should also be extended to gubernatorial and senate seats. One of the national TV stations in Kenya has been bringing live debates by aspiring senators and governors. What is lacking in many of these debates is the fact that speakers want to outshine each rather than responding to questions in a relevant and engaging way. There is a sense in which one hopes that the debates will take off and Kenyans will have a chance to resolve some of the electoral dilemma in voting.
Prof. Amutabi teaches Political Science at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa