By Peter Banda
This is what the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has demonstrated through its decision to recuse itself from participating in a series of debates for running mates and presidential candidates organized ahead of May 21 polls.
First things first. Debates which take place ahead of elections are an important element of democracy when they are conducted by professionals with noble motives. As a matter of fact, such debates offer an important platform for presidential contenders to present their party policies.
In the case of the sitting heads of state the debates offer a platform for them to articulate their future policies while at the same time defending their record.
But while in mature democracies most debates are organized by professionals, the same cannot be said of political debates which take place in some developing countries.
The first of such debates was held last week on Zodiak Broadcasting Corporation. But it left a lot to be desired.
It has been reported before that these debates in the local political scene have been taken hostage by some political parties who bulldoze through the ticketing system to fill up the galleries with their own whose job it is to shout down those they oppose. If this is true, then the behaviour of the audience at the last debate lends credence to the claim. When It was announced that one running mate would not be available, the audience went into an insulting shoutdown. This raises the question: If this was a neutral audience, what was the purpose of these insults? What was this rowdiness all about? That behaviour indeed raises serious questions on the integrity of the process of organizing the debate.
The big goof during that debate for running mates held on March 7, 2019 in Malawi capital Lilongwe was another example of how unprofessional and chaotic the debates can be.
During the debate, the anchor and even the debaters took time to peddle complete lies and bash the government on a report about the nationwide high resolution airborne geographical survey data.
The lies included serious allegations that government was secretly concealing from the public the outcome of the survey which was conducted with support from the World Bank and the European Union (EU). This was despite the fact that the government launched the report publicly in 2015 and the media covered the launch report extensively.
During the launch Natural Resources Minister Bright Msaka actually emphasized on the fact that the data generated from the survey was readily available and could be accessed by interested individuals and companies.
Why did these participants opt to tell lies about the report during such a debate?
Needless to say the host himself helped the participants in peddling the lie on this when he claimed the report was under wraps by the government. If the host himself was ignorant on this important issue, how would he ably make the debate a battle of honest ideas? If he know the truth but decided to tell a lie, what was the motive?
One can safely conclude that there was hidden motive to use a lie to embarrass the ruling party and the government.
Thirdly, as stated above, presidential debates including those of their runningmates are organized with the aim of ensuring that they market the policies of the parties, which are most of the time articulated in their manifestos. What this means is that any credible debate needs to be conducted when parties have launched their manifestos.
It is strange that in Malawi, for reasons best known to themselves, media houses have rushed to organize debates even before party manifestos have been launched. It is not surprising that the running mates during the last debate were busy waflling around issues, failing to articulate real policy issues which their parties will pursue. In these kinds of debates participants are supposed to speak their parties policies and not personal opinions.
In the end, that debate led to misleading conclusions. Just to demonstrate that the debate was a complete waste of time, one media house even declared that UTM running mate humorist and joker Michael Usi aka Manganya won the debate. How did he win the debate when he failed to outline tangible policies his parties would follow?
How could he outline party policies when the party does not even have a manifesto, old or new?
No wonder any serious-minded party will avoid being party to the comedy. No wonder DPP has made a stand to avoid participating in such political comedies.
There is one beauty with democracy. Parties and candidates are free to make choices that can assist them achieve their objectives. After all, participating in debate is a voluntary decision, hence no one can fault DPP for deciding to use its own means of marketing its policies.
Even in mature democracies, there are those who have reservations with Presidential debates. For example, in their joint report titled: “Presidential debates and their effects: Research roundup”, Denise-Marie Ordway and John Wihbey, argued that whilst the “news media often anticipate televised presidential debates as a national event of great importance…… political scientists have noted that, in contrast to the party conventions, the general election debates do not typically have dramatic effects on voters.”
Other researchers Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and David S. Birdsell have also their own observations about such debates.
Quoting the two researchers, one observer hinted: “Debates suffer from compression. Over the course of 90-120 minutes, candidates are expected to answer questions on more than a dozen different topics. This forces them to answer in anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. This is not conducive to providing anything but superficial, “soundbite” answers to the various questions,” they observe in one of their books.
“While debates might help citizens get a glimpse of a candidate’s communication skills, the debates fail to elicit or provide a means of evaluating some of the skills central to conduct in office including an ability to ask significant questions, a talent for securing sound advice, a disposition to act judiciously, and a capacity to compromise without violating conscience or basic social principles”
The capstone observation being: Debates “reward some behaviors undesirable in a president.” These include a willingness to offer solutions instantaneously, an ability to simplify complex problems … to make distinctions where only shades of difference exist and encourage simplifications that credit neither the candidates nor the audience”
Taking all these factors into consideration, DPP is right first of all to focus on working on its manifesto instead of rushing for debates where even the presenter displays his witlessness on common knowledge. After finalizing its manifesto, the party will find its own means of marketing its policies instead of just being bull-dozed into a game of political comedy.
Disclaimer: Views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of the Publisher or the Editor of Maravi Post