It’s easy to be blasé about election debates in the UK. Our experience of them is limited to the short-lived, incongruous Clegg-mania of 2010. There is always excitement about American presidential debates – but when they start, boredom soon takes over. It can be hard to argue there’s much point to it all.
Kenyans may disagree.
On Monday night, Kenya hosted its first ever presidential debate. On a stage reminiscent of that seen in American debates – the joke was that it had been borrowed from the last Kenyan to win a presidential election, Barack Obama – eight candidates sparred over three and a half hours.
The hope is that political candidates debating each other will help prevent a repeat of the 2007 election’s violence, when 1500 people were killed and arguably only the intervention of Kofi Annan prevented a full-blown civil war.
The notion might seem a ridiculous one, considering the webs of violence involved in 2007. Yet, helped by a strong and independent moderator, the debate forced the candidates to address some pertinent issues that they would have rather neglected – like the alleged role of several of them as puppet-masters orchestrating the violence for their own gain. Most memorably, Uhuru Kenyatta, deputy Prime Minister and leading Presidential candidate, was asked how he could govern "and at the same time attend trial as a crimes against humanity suspect" at the International Criminal Court. Kenyatta's trial for his alleged role in the 2007/08 violence is scheduled to begin in April, a month after the election.
And Kenyans were certainly watching Kenyatta's response: an estimated 300,000 tweets were sent about the debate. What did it all mean? Charles Onyango-Obbo, the Executive Editor of Nation Media Group in Kenya, said it “promoted the notion that debate and public defence of ones’ positions and record are a basis on which election outcomes are decided - not just money and ethnic herding.” He also argued that the civil attitudes of candidates to one another, especially between the two front-runners, “might have gone a small way to reduce the possibility of violence” in the election.
Ultimately, focusing the electorate’s minds on policy issues may encourage people to cast their votes based on stronger reasons than simple ethnic divides. According to one poll, 34 per cent of the electorate said they had changed their mind after watching the debate: an encouraging sign that it could contribute to undermining ethnic polarisation in Kenyan politics.
The experiences of Ghana shows how emerging democracies can benefit from holding debates. Its last two elections were extremely tense – in 2008, the winning margin was only 40,000 votes – yet mercifully free of violence. The presidential debates held “were useful in promoting an issues-based politicking and electioneering campaign and minimising the unnecessary whipping up of ethnic sentiments”, according to Dr Ransford Gyampo, a Political Science lecturer at the University of Ghana. Just as debates have helped Ghana’s democracy to mature, so they could have a similar effect in Kenya and elsewhere.
There remains much for Kenyans to be fearful about ahead of polling day on March 4th. Over 400 people have already been killed in politically related violence since the start of 2012. And Ivory Coast’s first presidential debate in 2010 didn't prevent over 1000 people being killed after the disputed election.
Yet the introduction of a presidential debate this year may be a tentative sign that Kenya is moving towards a less destructive form of politics. David Cameron is certainly not alone in his dislike for election debates. But, for all their flaws, they can be powerful tools for democratic empowerment. The world needs more TV debates.