Kenya’s Presidential Debates: My Hopes and Fears

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October 26, 2012 By Andrew Maina

Orange Democratic Movement leader Raila Odinga Address the press after being through out of the tally centre at the KICC in Nairobi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On November 27th Kenya will step into new territory as far as its political campaigning is concerned. As of now, what has been announced is that pretty much all of the country’s public and private broadcasters put came together and persuaded 13 presidential candidates to participate in 3 ‘town hall style’ debates, with the first being on November 27th 2012. Included in this list are 2 of the 4 Kenyans indicted by the International Criminal Court, 7 members of the current grand coalition cabinet, a former permanent secretary in education and several others. Kenyans now have one month to send in their questions and concerns to the various candidates in the hope that they will be included in the debates

The debates will represent a markedly different way of seeing the candidates and their campaigns on the part of the viewer and voter. Up to this point, as far as I know political campaigns have been dominated by public rallies, where candidates address large gatherings, and one on one interviews on television and radio. Unlike the public rally where the baying crowds militate against challenging the candidate’s wisdom, and media interviews, where a certain amount of niceness is required of the hosts to even get access to the politicians. Rather than shouting empty slogans at the big crowds or pliant star struck journalists, the debates represent and opportunity for someone with nothing to lose (and lots to gain) to really get at the candidates and get them to flesh out what they are really intending to as president: competing candidates. At least that’s what I’m hoping for

Up to this point mainstream  old media  coverage of the presidential campaigns focused mainly on the interplay  between the candidates as they try to cobble together  big enough ethnic alliances to meet the 50% + 25% in 24 counties threshold needed to clinch the presidency. Nobody has asked when Uhuru Kenyatta intends to bring KDF back from Somalia, or if Raila Odinga’s supposed ‘Socialism’ would mean health care reform or any such thing. It’s all so and so is in ‘secret’ talks with so and therefore so and so had better get his (or her) act together, by joining in or putting together a bigger alliance, otherwise they and their entire tribe will get locked out political power come 2013. How competent, original, innovative or even practical the programmes this set of  the politicians has for the rest of us Kenyans has totally been lost in all of this running up and down holding ‘secret’ talks and calling press conferences where supposedly earth shattering announcements are made.  It’s just these ethnic chess games which, together with a weak electoral system, that set Kenya up for such a terrible election last time around. I’m hoping that. Perhaps this debate will force the attention to shift to what they actually want to do rather than who’s got the biggest crowd of groupies.

Alternatively the whole thing could degenerate into name calling and innuendo which characterises Kenyan and African politics since the return of multiparty democracy. The debate could merely emphasize the bias of the various media houses as they try to spin the outcomes to make the favourites in their various audiences look good.  Perhaps, the pundits will assume most us Kenyans are too daft or tribal to weigh down with real issues and dumb the whole thing down by speculating on style rather than substance. That is both in the line of questioning, and in the assessments and coverage afterwards. Or maybe the whole thing could pass without incident and we go back to the usual shenanigans. That would be my biggest fear.

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