By Francis Openda
Debates formed an integral part of our school days, even though they were limited to a single subject, but served their purpose.
You could be given a topic like, ‘Between Mother and Father Who Is More Important?’ You had to take a position, yet deep inside, you knew both your parents mattered.
There had to be a winner and it was painful when you lost to one of your rival schools.
The debates helped sharpen our thinking and oratory skills and many of today’s prominent lawyers and public speakers are products of school debates.
At national level, presidential debates are becoming the norm worldwide as they provide the much-needed platform for citizens to interact and measure the capacity and temperament of those seeking votes to take reins of power away from campaign trail.
“The debates series, in an election cycle, is a platform for citizens to interrogate the manifesto of different candidates in a manner that separates the substance from the noise,” says Kenya Editors’ Guild President Churchill Otieno.
Mr Otieno says a lot of what political candidates do and say during campaigns is rhetoric as there is no room for interrogation, and it is only when these are reviewed by professionals they are validated for the voter.
He says voters are concerned about pledges that would improve their lives, and the debates provide an unrivalled platform for candidates to explain this.
The candidates on the other hand get an opportunity to reach a much wider audience to expound their manifestos.
Kenya has had two presidential debates, the first in 2013 attracting a crowded field of eight. They included Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila Odinga, Musalia Mudavadi, James ole Kiyiapi, Abduba Dida, Martha Karua, Paul Muite and Peter Kenneth.
The second debate was held in 2017, and pitted the incumbent Uhuru against his main rival Raila Odinga, even though Uhuru boycotted the session, leaving his arch rival with all the time to articulate his manifesto.
The country’s third debate was held in July 26 and was preceded by the Deputy Presidential Debate on July 19. Both were held at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Karen, Nairobi.
The committee also organised the Governor Debates for select counties with the one for Nairobi held on July 11.
This year’s Presidential Debate was organised by the Media Owners Association, Media Council of Kenya and Kenya Editors Guild, which crafted the Presidential Debate Guidelines 2022.
The guidelines spell out the date and venue, arrival time, principles of debate, rules of engagement, debate format, selection of candidates and the moderators.
The guidelines also stipulate the choice and role of moderators, audience, candidates, confidentiality, choice of topics, broadcast of the debate and provisions to all participants.
HOW WILL CANDIDATES BE PICKED?
To participate, a candidate had to have the support of at least five per cent of the registered voters in national opinion polls conducted by reputable research firms. Candidates with less than five per cent took part in separate single pool debates.
“The admissible polls will be by those registered with the Pollster Society of Kenya and will be determined by the average of the results of three national polling organisations publicly reported,” state the guidelines.
Eligible polling organisations should not be affiliated with any political party. The polls must meet the criteria set out in the Publication of Electoral Opinion Polls Act.
The rules also state that a letter of introduction will be sent to all the candidates followed by a team from the steering committee meeting presidential candidate handlers at least two weeks before each debate.
Each debate is divided into six segments of 15 minutes each on the major thematic areas to be announced to the candidates at least a week before the debate. The debates will be a direct engagement between candidates and a single moderator.
During the debate, candidates must not use mobile phones, tablets, laptops or other technological devices except when making opening or closing remarks. They may, however, use a notepad and a pen.
They will not be allowed to use props or visual aids and must adhere to the time allocated to them. A buzzer will be used to signal the end of allocated time.
In the event of the death of a candidate before the debate, the running mate will be ineligible to participate in the running mate debate.
In case a running mate dies before the debate, the presidential candidate can only participate after picking an alternative running mate.
The identity of the moderator shall not be disclosed to candidates and political parties until few days to the debate.
The moderator must be familiar with the candidates, but not to the extent of being biased. He or she must have experience in television including live TV, documentaries and commentaries.
They also need to have wide knowledge of current affairs ranging from politics, economy, law, public policy and social issues as well as international relations. The moderator must fully appraise himself or herself with the debate guidelines.
The debate secretariat does not limit moderators to television presenters but mediators from organisations such as the Institute of Arbitrators, Suluhu Mediation Centre or the Mediation Training Institute can also moderate.
Moderators must not be affiliated to any political party or candidate. They will not meet with the campaign teams.
The moderator will receive questions from the audience and pose them to the candidate, and interrupt candidates if they breach the guidelines. The moderator must ensure candidates do not steer away from the topic.
The moderator must operate within set rules and will be removed if he or she shows partiality, uses offensive words or exhibits offensive conduct, or arrive late.
The moderators, organisers, audience members and any related parties shall not disclose the questions prior to the debate.
The questions cover national cohesion and integration, economy, the role of political parties, integrity of candidates and devolution.
Other areas include justice and the rule of law, environment, climate change and food security, infrastructure, education, health and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The physical audience will be limited to 100 citizens who are undecided on whom to vote for. It will comprise different genders, age groups, marginalised groups and persons with disability.
Members of the physical audience must not wear branded material of any candidate or party. They must not display any campaign items. The audience is barred from booing, ululating, cheering, applauding or showing support in any manner and must maintain silence except when posing a question.
The online audience is open and anyone may ask questions through Twitter, email or SMS.
All participants shall observe the Covid-19 measures currently in place.
Only radio and TV stations that have signed up for distribution shall air the debate for 90 minutes.
Presidential candidates should take the debates seriously as they might just provide that moment for the undecided voter to make a decision or sway someone from the other camp to yours.