When a presidential race is as close as this year’s, there is endless speculation about what might tip the outcome to Uhuru Kenyatta or Raila Odinga.
In the US, presidential debates are potential game changers: This may not be the case in Kenya, as we are still learning the ropes of the significance of presidential debates.
In Kenya, presidential debates account for far less political influence, compared to political rallies. Politicians generally fear debates for many reasons: Debates are mainly a Truth-o-Meter, a factual scale of sorts. Politicians are not allowed to run away with the lies they are used to peddling in political rallies. Many politicians depend on propaganda and lies to win votes, which cannot succeed in presidential debates.
Incumbents are the more worried about facing opponents in a debate, because they are likely to become the punching bags, especially if your reign is not something to write home about. This explains why President Uhuru Kenyatta was the first to behave in a manner likely to suggest that he is not interested in the debates.
Presidential debates are important avenues for raising accountability questions with the candidates. They give the candidates the opportunity to share their vision on specific issues with specific sections of the populace who don’t attend political rallies. It is also from the debates that Kenyans will be able to assess the emotional intelligence and individual competences of the candidates. A serious candidate should value the event.
Butthe impact of the debates is limited because the candidates are fairly evenly matched. Each candidate will have read a thick stack of briefing notes and rehearsed extensively. They are likely to stick to their messages as rehearsed and may not be easily rattled. The content of discussion is sometimes complex, with no time to nuance it for the ordinary voter to consume, making it fodder for only a section of the electorate.
For accountability purposes, all presidential candidates are under moral obligation to attend the debate and have a discourse with Kenyans. Presidential debates are a silent way of implementing our national values and principles of governance, which are unfettered in Article 10 of our Constitution. No one can purport to be trusted with the implementation of the Constitution but decline to participate in an event that in essence is an implementation of the same Constitution.
The writer is a political scientist
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