The value of presidential debate

Boko, Butale, Masisi and Gaolatlhe. PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
Boko, Butale, Masisi and Gaolatlhe. PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES

On Wednesday night Batswana witnessed the first televised presidential debate in the history of the republic.

The president of the Botswana Democratic Party, Mokgweetsi Masisi, Umbrella for Democratic Change president, Duma Boko, Alliance for Progressives leader, Ndaba Gaolathe, and Biggie Butale of the Botswana Patriotic Front, locked horns on the big stage as they sought to persuade Batswana to vote for them.

The two debates that were held in the past, the one during the 2014 election cycle, and the one last week, were between leaders of the opposition without that of the ruling party.

So, the debate on Wednesday was not just unprecedented in terms of being televised and live-streamed worldwide, but included the sitting President as one of the candidates on the podium.

The first televised presidential debate was held in the United States of America in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy who were both vying for president of that country.

Historians generally agree that this televised appearance had a profound effect upon the result of the election that year. Since then the importance of these debates has grown immensely.

Sixty years later, political scientists note that in contrast to party conventions, in the case of the US, the general elections debates do not typically have dramatic effects on voters.

They argue that by the time the debates take place many voters have already made up their minds anyway, but this is not to say that there will not be some who may still be swayed one way or the other by the performance of the candidates.

It is worth noting that in a parliamentary system, like that of Botswana, the impact of such debates cannot be as profound as that of a presidential system.

In a presidential system, like that of the United States, the president is on the ballot and is elected directly to that office. This is not the case in Botswana.

None of the candidates is on the ballot paper for president. Boko, Gaolathe and Butale are also running for Parliament. 

At best debates test a candidates’ coolness under pressure and ability to articulate some thought at least remotely related to the question while convincing the viewers that he or she is both personable and serious.

Debates provide individual candidates the opportunity of showing voters that they have the right temperament for the big stage on prime time.

It is more of a public relations stunt than substance. Because it is television, and families are watching in their living rooms, image is of utmost importance.

Seeing how one endures personal attack, as it often happens in these debates, is an outstanding measure of a leader’s character and an opportunity to learn how the candidate will react to the sorts of unreasonable and unfair conditions that the president can expect to encounter in that office going forward.

A debate is not about policy. It is impossible to state a coherent policy in any complex matter in 60 seconds as was the case on Wednesday night.

Debates test one thing, the ability to quickly respond to complex questions that are impossible to answer in the time available. They put a premium on being fast and witty but do not say much about how smart a candidate is.

The nature of the format of presidential debates, as was the case on Wednesday, may slightly favour the challenger, about whom the public knows less.

It is easy to criticise the sitting President and the government of the day because they cannot please everybody.  In Wednesday’s debate there were three challengers.

As it was to be expected all of them were taking shots at Mokgweetsi Masisi because he is the incumbent. And credit to him, he handled them very well.

Because television is a powerful medium, gaffes in these debates can potentially hurt candidates. Such gaffe could be in the form of body language or an utterance.

With the ubiquity of social media it is even worse because such a gaffe gets disseminated around the world very quickly.

Such gaffes could live with the candidate for a very long time. Many people who watched the 1960 debate in the United States still remember a sweaty, nervous looking, and make-up free Richard Nixon squaring off against a youthful and energetic looking John F. Kennedy, who went on to win the election that year.

If comments on social media are anything to go by it appears Boko’s bo-Nkoborwane, bo-Magogajase and bo-Rankurata refrain on the day is one that will be remembered most for some time to come!

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