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The value of presidential debates

Despite being a democracy for 24 years, Namibia has not yet managed to organise a debate among presidential candidates ahead of national elections. Namibian politicians rarely debate each other in public forums outside parliament – and this election campaign has been especially lacking in interactive discussions involving candidates. Most politicians prefer the safety of the soapbox rather than environments where their views and policies could be questioned and challenged. Ahead of the 2014 elections efforts to persuade the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation to host a debate were unsuccessful. The national broadcaster did not give clear reasons for being unable to broadcast such an event. The Namibian newspaper stepped in to organise an event scheduled for the evening of November 26 which will be live streamed over the Internet. However, ruling party presidential candidate, Hage Geingob, declined to participate, although the remaining eight candidates agreed to debate their policies.
The holding of presidential candidate debates is gradually becoming a norm in many democracies. Despite diverse politics and cultures, countries across the globe have begun to make debates among candidates for president, prime minister, parliament and local government centrepieces of their elections. Behind this global trend is the belief that debates benefit emerging democracies in many ways, including:

• helping voters make an informed choice at the ballot box
• reducing the potential for violence in countries coming out of periods of conflict
• encouraging candidates to focus on public policy issues rather than personality, and
• holding elected officials accountable to their campaign promises after elections.

As Joseph Korto of the Liberia Equal Right Party commented, "The greatest thing about this debate is to see Liberian presidential candidates sitting here and talking to each other and trying to convince voters rather than being in the bush and shooting at each other."
However, organising successful candidate debates is not easy. Debates require overcoming daunting political, organisational and technical hurdles, including: forming a debates sponsoring organisation, encouraging often reluctant candidates to take part, negotiating with media outlets to broadcast debates, choosing engaging and informative debate formats, raising funds, ensuring event security and producing live national television and radio broadcasts.
The exact formats for presidential candidate debates vary, but normally the debate will begin with each leader making a short opening statement. Then a panel of well-known journalists or political commentators will ask sets of prepared questions, which are to be answered either by all of the leaders or by one specific leader. Sometimes an audience composed of a cross-section of the electorate asks questions of the candidates. After candidates answer each question, the other candidates may get a chance to make a brief response, after which there may be some time allocated for an often heated "free for all" debate.
Who gets invited to participate in a leaders debate is often a sensitive issue. Some jurisdictions may have dozens of fringe political parties which few broadcast networks would care to have participating in their debates. Although there is often pressure to include more candidates, this can reduce the quality of the debate.
- Adapted from the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Wikipedia

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© 2017 Election Watch

Election Watch is a project of the Institute for Public Policy Research in Windhoek, Namibia. Election Watch is funded by the European Union and the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives.