Will TV debates bring Kenya peace?

Election debates in Kenya may help prevent the horrors of the last election.

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.

The eight candidates in Kenya's first presidential debate. Photo: Getty

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Bernie Sanders is America’s most popular politician – and he’s coming after Donald Trump

Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision. As of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020.

“I like Bernie Sanders,” my four-year-old niece in Texas said to me last month. “Why isn’t he president?” More than six months on from the defeat of Hillary Clinton, it’s a question that countless frustrated progressives across the United States continue to ask aloud.

Remember that the election of Donald Trump was not the only political earthquake to shake the US establishment last year. A 74-year-old, self-declared socialist and independent senator from the tiny state of Vermont, in a crumpled suit and with a shock of Einsteinian white hair, came close to vanquishing the Clinton machine and winning the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders began the campaign as the rank outsider, mocked by the former Obama strategist David Axelrod as the candidate with whom Democratic voters might “flirt” and have a “fling” before settling down with Clinton. By the end of the campaign he had won 13 million votes and 23 states, and raised more than $200m.

In this dystopian age of Trump, it is remarkable that Sanders is now by far the most popular politician in the US – and this in a country where “socialist” has long been a dirty word. Increasing numbers of Americans seem nevertheless to “feel the Bern”. As such, Sanders supporters cannot help but ask the big counterfactual question of our time: would Trump be the president today if he had faced Bernie rather than Hillary in the election? Throughout the campaign, polls showed him crushing Trump in a head-to-head match-up. In a poll on the eve of the election, Sanders trumped Trump by 12 percentage points.

Democratic voters were told repeatedly that Clinton was more “electable” – but had they opted for Sanders as their candidate, there would have been none of the backlash over her emails, Benghazi, Bill, her Iraq War vote, or her Goldman Sachs speeches. So did the Democrats, in effect, gift the presidency to the Republican Party by picking the divisive and establishment-friendly Clinton over Sanders the economic populist?

I can’t prove it but I suspect that Sanders would have beaten Trump – although, to be fair to the much-maligned Clinton, she, too, beat Trump by nearly three million votes. Also, one-on-one polls showing Sanders ahead of Trump in a hypothetical match-up fail to tell us how the independent senator’s support would have held up against a barrage of vicious Republican attack ads during a general election campaign.

Then there is the matter of race. Clinton, despite deep support in African-American and Latino communities, was unable to mobilise Barack Obama’s multiracial coalition. Sanders would have done even worse than she did among minority voters. Trump voters, meanwhile, were motivated less by economic anxiety (as plenty on the left, including Sanders, wrongly claim) than – according to most academic studies, opinion polls and the latest data from the American National Election Studies – by racial resentment and an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim animus. Sanders, who at a recent rally in Boston defended Trump voters from accusations of bigotry and racism, would probably have struggled as much as Clinton did to respond to this “whitelash”.

Nevertheless, Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision and I would argue that, as of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020. His support for greater Wall Street regulation, debt-free college tuition, universal health care and a higher minimum wage is not only morally correct and economically sound but also hugely popular with voters across the political spectrum.

The Democrats have a mountain to climb. They have to find a way to enthuse their diverse, demoralised base while winning back white voters who are concerned much more by issues of race and identity than by jobs or wages. A recent poll found that the party had lower approval ratings than both Trump and the Republicans as a whole.

Yet press reports suggest that at least 22 Democrats are thinking about running for president in 2020. This is madness. Few are serious contenders – thanks to the dominance of the Clinton machine in recent years, the party doesn’t have a deep bench. There is no new generation of rising stars.

The only two people who could plausibly prevent Sanders from winning the nomination next time round are the former vice-president Joe Biden and the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. The good news is that all three of these Democratic contenders are, to varying degrees, economic populists, willing to stand up passionately for “the little guy”. The bad news is that the Democratic base may fantasise about a young, dynamic Justin Trudeau or Emman­uel Macron of their own but, come the 2020 election, Sanders will be 79, Biden 77 and Warren 71. (Then again, they’ll be up against a sitting Republican president who will be 74, behaves as if he has dementia and refuses to release his medical records.)

Bizarrely, that election campaign has already begun. On 1 May, Trump released his first official campaign ad for re-election, 1,282 days before the next presidential vote. Biden visited New Hampshire last month to give a speech, while Warren is on a national tour to promote her new bestselling book, This Fight Is Our Fight.

Sanders, however – riding high in the polls, and with his vast database of contacts from the 2016 race as well as a clear, popular and long-standing critique of a US political and economic system “rigged” in favour of “the billionaire class” – is the man to beat. And rightly so. Sanders understands that the Democrats have to change, and change fast. “There are some people in the Democratic Party who want to maintain the status quo,” he said in March. “They would rather go down with the Titanic so long as they have first-class seats.”

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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