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US-STYLE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION TV DEBATES IN KENYA


US-style presidential election candidate TV debates – could they happen in Kenya?

The Kenyan media have got together and announced plans to hold three US-style debates between aspirants for the office of President in next March’s election, to be aired across eight TV stations and 32 radio stations. It is a good and exciting idea, says the Kenya Forum but there are potential pitfalls for both media houses and the politicians involved.

In principal the Forum believes TV debates between Kenya’s presidential candidates proposed for November 26, January 14 and February 11, would help Kenyan voters to make a more informed choice come polling day and enhance the democratic process in the country.

PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES STEERING COMMITTEE

‘The Presidential Debates Steering Committee’ held a press conference yesterday attended by chief executive officers of Royal Media Services, The Nation Media Group, The Standard Group, Radio Africa Group and Kass Group, at which they announced plans for three 90 minute town-hall style debates between the candidates in front of two ‘moderators’ and four panelists.

To try and ensure fairness in the debate, PricewaterhouseCoopers have been brought in to audit the process, whist the rules of engagement will be agreed between the presidential candidates, their campaign teams and steering committee. That’s the theory anyway.

HISTORY OF US TV DEBATES SAYS IT COULD MAKE A DIFFERENCE

A quick look at the history of presidential candidate TV debates in the United States, including the most recent between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, would suggest that if the idea goes ahead in Kenya it could have a significant impact on the result of the elections in 2013.

KENNEDY vs NIXON

The first televised debate between US presidential candidates was held in September 1960 between Democrat candidate, Senator John F. Kennedy, and his Republican opponent Vice-President Richard Nixon. Evidence suggests that the audience listening on radio thought that Nixon sounded better but that the TV audience thought that the tanned, young Kennedy fared better against the white-faced, sweating Nixon. Kennedy won the election.

OBAMA vs ROMNEY

Last Wednesday evening in Colorado, in front of an audience of 67 million Americans, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, whose campaign for the US presidency had all but stalled, put in a bravura performance against a distracted and lethargic Barack Obama when the two discussed the economy for 90 minutes.

At the time of the debate Romney was about five per cent behind Obama in the opinion polls. Post-debate polls however, suggested that Romney won the debate by 46 per cent to 22 per cent according to registered voters (CBS poll) who watched the debate. (See also, Kenya Forum posting, ‘The Obama vs Romney TV Debate – Who Won?’, Oct. 4)

Romney now appears to have narrowed the gap with Obama to almost neck-and-neck. His personal rating as viewed by US voters has also improved (Reuters/Ipsos poll) with to 51 per cent of voters now viewing him positively (although Obama still holds a 56 per cent positive rating) and Romney appears to have drawn level with Obama in the ‘swing states’ of Virginia and Ohio (although not in Florida).

PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES’ TV DEBATES: WILL THEY HAPPEN IN KENYA?

Kenyatta and Odinga – will their campaign advisors want them to take part?

So could it happen here in Kenya? The Kenya Forum, unfortunately, has to point out some problems with the plan for presidential candidates TV debate in Kenya.

The proposed format for the programmes in Kenya is, like the American format, set for three 90 minute debates. The US, however, has two main candidates running for office. In Kenya, at present, we have about 10 candidates who have declared that they will run for the presidency. Allowing two minutes for each candidate to answer a question and a minute each for follow-up comments (the US format) that will allow enough time for at best three questions to be asked.

So could the number of candidates involved be reduced? The problem here is how do you fairly select which candidates can take part. Odinga and Kenyatta yes but what about Ruto, Mudavadi, Karua and the rest?

WILL THE LEADING CANDIDATES AGREE TO TAKE PART?

Then there is the question of whether the leading candidates will want to attend the TV debates. At present they have been ‘invited’ but they haven’t said yes.

There is a saying, “Never give a sucker and even break”: it applies in politics.

Raila Odinga’s campaign advisors, for example, would not want him to share a platform with minor candidates, i.e. those who at present only have a few per cent support in the opinion polls. To do so would put them on an equal footing with the Prime Minister for 90 minutes. Odinga’s presence would give his opponents’ prominence, not the other way about. The dangers for Odinga from a ‘sucker punch’ could be enormous. The same goes for Uhuru Kenyatta.

What about presentation? Would Raila Odinga’s campaign advisors want him, at the age of 68, standing next to the more youthful Uhuru Kenyatta (52) or William Ruto (51) on live television?

POLICIES NOT “YAH-BOO-SUCKS” POLITICS

Presidential candidate TV debates in Kenya would be fun at least, more importantly we might, at last, get some discussion about policies rather the usual “They are frightened of us” line and “yah-boo-sucks” politics that we have to put up with at present.

The Kenya Forum hopes the election TV debates go ahead in Kenya but we’ll believe it when we see it.

RELATED KENYA FORUM POSTING: ‘Kenya’s Latest Opinion Polls’ (Oct 3)

President Kenyatta declared winner.

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