How the first debate in 2013 changed democracy

Ahead of Kenya’s third Presidential Debate, Rosemary Okello-Orlale tells us how it all began

Kenya held its first Presidential Debate in 2013 ahead of the first General Election under the new Constitution promulgated in August 2010.

This was a historic election in the sense that the new Constitution had introduced a new structure of government that included devolved units. Voters were thus electing six office bearers instead of the three they were accustomed to. They would have to choose a president and deputy president, governor, senator, Woman Representative, Member of Parliament and Member of County Assembly.

A total of 1,882 positions were up for grabs; one president; 290 National Assembly seats; 1,450 county assembly seats; 47 governor slots; 47 Women Representative slots and 47 senator positions.

But the presidency remained the most influential position and a total of eight candidates were nominated by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to contest the seat.

It is in this context that the media came together to organise the first presidential debate, providing a platform where voters could make informed decisions based on issues, as opposed to the personality or ethnic background of the candidate.

The Ford Foundation Eastern African Office come on board as one of the first sponsors and the stakeholders agreed to have two debates.

While the idea, modelled on the US presidential debates, was exciting, executing it presented serious challenges. There was no structure and no research department was at hand to anchor debate issues. Other challenges included TV production handicaps and the absence of the necessary digital infrastructure to stream the debate. After all, the 2013 presidential debate was to be aired by eight TV stations and over 38 radio stations. Radio and TV stations also had to livestream through the internet to reach a wider audience.

To deal with these challenges, the industry came up with a governance structure. It consisted of a steering committee of seven members comprising CEOs of media houses and a s­­ecretariat under the leadership of PWC, an auditing and advisory firm.

The team, in addition to managing different facets of the campaign, ensured those in the audience were from diverse parts of Kenya and represented different key stakeholders, such as civil society, people living with disability, and the security sector.

A short message service (SMS) platform was also provided to the public to enable them to send in questions for the candidates.

The team agreed on eight thematic areas to be covered by the debate­­­s as follows:

Presidential Debate 1 Presidential Debate 2
  1. Governance
  2. Social Services – health and education
  3. Security
  4. Resources and resource management


  1. Economy
  2. Land and land use
  3. Devolution
  4. Foreign policy


The debates provided the presidential candidates with a platform for constructive engagement with the public in an open forum, demystified the presidency and allowed the public to openly question candidates. The six candidates that participated in the two presidential debates were Prof James Ole Kiyiapi, Hon Martha Karua, Hon Musalia Mudavadi, Hon Peter Kenneth, Hon Raila Odinga and Hon Uhuru Kenyatta

The moderators of the debates were:

The debate team also released rules that candidates and the audience had to follow. They included;

  • No clapping, cheering, or jeering during the debates
  • Audience can acknowledge candidates as they walk in with a clap
  • Time limits on the responses to be strictly observed
    • Visible timing mechanisms provided
    • Moderator intervention
  • Candidates cannot interrupt each other
  • Candidates will be dressed in formal business attire
  • No political materials allowed – including banners, signs, literature, party branded clothing etc.
  • Candidates will be permitted to communicate in English or Kiswahili. However, a question shall be answered in the language in which it was asked.
  • Candidates shall remain civil and respectful to each other and no insults or derogatory statements will be permitted.
  • Candidates shall address each other with mutual respect and endearing words like my worthy opponent, the Honourable so and so.
  • Two representatives for each participating political party alliance.
  • Ballot will determine order of candidate entry into auditorium & lectern positions.
  • No flash photography is permitted.
  • Formulation of questions is the SOLE responsibility of the organisers after evaluating public input.
  • Candidates are required to be at the venue one hour before the start of the debate.
  • Audience must be seated 30 mins before the start of the debate.
  • No one should enter or leave the debate hall 10 minutes before the start of the debate.


Writing in the title Staging democracy: Kenya’s televised presidential debates in 2014, Natalie Moss and Alasdair O’Hare noted that election campaigns took a novel turn in 2013 when the debates were introduced.  The two debates were widely celebrated as a shift from politics of personality and ethnicity towards a more sober, issue-based form of electoral competition.

The 2013 presidential debate also proved what the media could do if they worked together to promote democracy. It not only lay the ground for the subsequent debates, but also set the pace for Uganda and Tanzania, which went ahead to hold similar discussions.