The Star (Nairobi)

9 February 2013

Kenya: Live Debate to Make or Break Politicians

The stage is set for the country's first ever presidential debate.   ( Resource: Kenya to Hold Presidential Debate

A Presidential debate is a job interview and it can make or break you. When the leading contenders for president take the podium during the first debate for the 2013 elections on Monday, they will not only be affirming their quest for Kenya's top job but exposing their ideas and unknowingly their weaknesses.

Kenya is at crossroads and for the first time, our politics is inching closer to issues as opposed to ethnic or community-based voting pattern. Voters are actually interested in learning about the candidate's position on various contentious national issues.

Pastor Simon Mbevi at the Nairobi Chapel church put it so well during a recent sermon focusing on our homeland and specifically analysing the qualities voters need to be concerned about while reviewing a candidate's ability to be president. In basic terms, he called it the five C's that define good leadership qualities.

Is the leader Conciliatory, Caring, has Character, Competent and have a compelling vision for Kenya? Those may well be the parameters that guide millions of voters who will make up the biggest interview panel ever assembled and who will be glued to the television and radio sets.

Debates can build an aspirant and they can expose their foibles. They can unmask your preparedness and grasp of the basic issues that confront the voters and your ability to deal with them.

The evolution of the presidential debates has come a long way, but no nation has quite perfected the importance and value that debates bring to the electoral process than the United States where a candidate's performance can move the needle to his advantage or their poor performance can be fodder for their opponents.

The first televised presidential debate in US was held in 1960 pitting Republican Richard Nixon versus a young and ambitious Democract, John F Kennedy.

Kennedy came out as fresh-faced, polished and confident. Nixon had so much make up that he looked like he was sweating profusely during the debate.

Kennedy had been smart enough to turn down an offer for make up. The viewers noted such a mundane issue and embraced Kennedy's self-confidence at the polls - narrowly.

President Obama went into his first presidential debate last October beaming with confidence and riding high on opinion polls against Republican millionaire Mitt Romney.

He soon learnt he had been unprepared, came out as condescending and basically let Romney run circles all over him. His dreadful performance in that one single debate cost him the lead in several battleground states and effectively brought Romney, then struggling at the polls and staring at an electoral defeat back into the race. The election had suddenly morphed from a one sided contest in favour of Obama to a statistical dead heat.

A great debater and orator can move the numbers towards his campaign and attract undecided voters hungry to hang on to some straws.

Remember that debates are great for candidates to showcase their oratorical skills and grasp of issues, but they benefit undecided voters more than any other voting group in an election cycle.

This is largely because many voters have already made up their minds who they are backing. Those voting for Uhuru Kenyatta or Musalia Mudavadi are unlikely to swing to Raila Odinga because of the debates.

In other words, those who are fanatical about their candidate are not moving an inch. That is the reality of elections no matter how you look at it.

But then there is a second constituency that is largely undecided that is looking for something, anything to be persuaded to vote for a candidate or stay away from the polls altogether.

This group probably has specific issues that are driving them to the polls like marginalised communities or special interest needs and are waiting to hear which candidate will address their issue.

Then there is a third constituency of voters who are flip floppers. They have a candidate in mind but can be easily persuaded to switch to another candidate if they follow the debate and think he or she has impressed them more.

The beauty of debates is that they allow for public participation, enabling voters to hear and watch the candidates outside their hyped up and choreographed road campaigns.

And debates can produce special and memorable moments. In the 1988 US election debate, then Vice President Republican nominee Dan Quale famously compared himself with Jack Kennedy in his preparedness to serve in the government.

His opponent, Democrat Lloyd Bentsen retorted: "I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

Quayle shot back, "That was really uncalled for, Senator," but had to wait until the laughter in the hall had died down to respond.

The most important thing candidates must learn about debates is, like a scout, to be prepared. Get your facts straight and know how to defend your stand on various contentious issues.

If a candidate shows lack of basic knowledge about the history of the country, basic statistics about population spread, economic indicators, set up of government or even how the central government operates that's probably a red flag.

Candidates spent hours working with a debate preparer on such basics like diction, body language and how to control their emotions. If a candidate gets easily upset while answering an annoying question then that's probably an indication he lacks the fortitude and maturity to confront the most challenging and polarising issue without keeping his cool. It demonstrates lack of temperament.

The debate forum will be baptism of fire where body and facial expression say a lot more about a candidate than the words coming out of their mouths.

Then there is content of the mind. I will be glued to the television screen watching the candidates take tough questions in the ultimate job interview in the country and hopefully waiting to be impressed.

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