19 February 2013

Kenya: What Does a Presidential Poll Debate Entail?


There is arguably no one single event that marked a watershed in the history and development of presidential debates more than the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate 1960. When the Democratic nominee, Kennedy, and the Republican nominee, Nixon, took the debating stand in 1960, no one knew it would be history in the making as far as subtleties are concerned.

To date, it is argued that the extent of lighting, manner of facial make-up, degree composure and the perceived appeal of the candidates' looks leveraged Kennedy's victory as they conspired to thwart Nixon's ambition of becoming USA's 35th President.

February 11 2013, Kenya had what is unanimously agreed to be a progressive step - its maiden presidential debate. Eight candidates took the podium to discuss such pressing issues such as the ICC charges leveled against the Jubilee Coalition presidential candidate ; the scourge of the malaise of tribalism and the state of education in the nation.

This had been preceded by a Nairobi governor debate, hosted by Strathmore University in partnership with a local media house, and was quickly succeeded by the Deputy Presidential debate hosted by Daystar University in partnership with a local media house. What is perceptible is the emergent trend of debates for those eyeing high seats of public office.

This is important for one substantial reason - the need to gravitate Kenyan politics into the confines of an issue based undertaking as envisioned in the Vision 2030. Kenya is plagued by numerous grave issues.

Think with me for a moment: A child born in the remote parts of marginalised North Eastern is literally born decades behind his agemates born to an affluent family in Nairobi.

The two do not have an equal shot at making it in life. A child who schools through the public education system has to make do with broadened access and diminished quality from primary school through higher learning. Deliberations are underway as to whether or not to relocate the UNEP headquarters from Gigiri owing to high insecurity.

Only until this year have Kenyans engaged in national dialogue on the thorny issue of rationalizing bloated pay structures for public officers and yet just last year, teachers, lecturers and nurses took to the streets to protest underpayment. The public transport system is an empire of racketeers and cartels that holds the nation at ransom as it so wishes.

We are grappling with issues of such magnitude and yet our political terrain is shaped by empty rhetoric and reneged promises.

As we welcome the trend of increasing debates amongst public office hopefuls, we must realise that to engage in debate for nothing more substantial than scoring political points is an exercise in futility.

In civilised democracies, debates are undertaken for something infinitely more important - the need to discuss issues with intellectual honesty and not beholden to stereotypical loyalties.

AMBOKO JULIANS is an economics and political science student at the Kenyatta University.

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