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Opinion & Analysis

Uhuru, Raila should not skip TV debates

President Uhuru Kenyatta. Uhuru and Raila should  agree to face one another in a TV debate. file photo | nmg
President Uhuru Kenyatta. Uhuru and Raila should agree to face one another in a TV debate. file photo | nmg 

Let’s all hope that the two frontrunners in the August 8 presidential contest - President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga - will agree to face one another in the planned televised debates.

Started in 2013, televised presidential debates have become a defining moment in our electioneering calendar.

From the noisy politics and intemperate exchanges at campaign rallies, you move the presidential candidates to a forum where members of the public can assess their sincerity and belief in what they want to achieve and their deep knowledge of the burning issues of the day.

One can dismiss the debates as talking shops, but you must agree that when you bring presidential candidates together at a place where members of the public can see them shaking hands and hug, hear them exchange pleasantries, reminisce about the good old days when they worked together and refer to one another as ‘brother’ on national TV; the psychological impact can be very huge.

The debates are what makes it possible for a candidate to psychologically persuade members of the public that a general election is not that much of a high-stakes affair that their tribesmen think must be won at all costs.

That is also how you lower political temperatures in the country.

If you can get a competent moderator able to guide the debate away from scandal-mongering to pertinent issues of the day, a moderator with the ability to cleverly navigate the debate and create an environment where candidates are encouraged to crack jokes, exchange banter and pleasantries, and where they come through not as ardent enemies dying for an opportunity to go for each other’s throats- the TV debates can play a very big role in lowering tension.

However, I am not surprised that Uhuru and Raila have raised concerns about the format of the TV debates. When we cram the platform with too many fringe players, you will not have given the frontrunners enough time to fully ventilate on relevant and pressing issues of the day.

Personally, I am keen to hear what the presidential candidates would say about several issues. I want to hear them discuss the deteriorating state of government finances, mounting public debts, widespread distress in the banking sector and the ballooning budget deficit.

How are the presidential candidates planning to return Kenya to the growth path that was interrupted by the 2007/08 post-election violence?

Our economy was growing by seven per cent even before the GDP numbers were rebased. When you parade too many fringe candidates on the platform to engage with the frontrunners, the primary purpose of the debate gets lost.

A presidential debate gives a guide on what policy-making is likely to be.

We also saw what happened during the debate by Nairobi gubernatorial candidates where so much space and time was devoted to scandal-mongering. They threw mud at each other as if it was a race to determine who was the most corrupt.

When you allow leaders to trade allegations and accuse each other of corruption in the manner that these candidates did, you are allowing them to fudge culpability. It thereforebecomes difficult to pin down the culprits.

Scandal-mongering by politicians is what feeds public cynicism at even genuine efforts to fight corruption. And when you pin a politician down on an allegation that you can’t prove, you encourage dishonesty and deception, which in turn fuels more suspicion and cynicism.

Where are the big ideas of the next decade? After trying 10 years of tax and spend- of expansionary spending- isn’t it time we experimented with austerity?

Which of the presidential candidates is prepared to wield the axe? Is an economy based on easy credit and heavy government borrowing going to be sustainable going forward?

Uhuru and Raila should agree to face one another in a TV debate.

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