Public debate for individuals seeking prime public offices is one of the means through which society tracks and hold down the politician to some evidence.
Promises they say are made to be broken. In no other field in life does this maxim hold as true as it does in politics. Perhaps in love affair too. May be. Even at this, and for all that is known about politicians and their proclivity to lie and to over promise, the society still listens to politicians and yearns to hear them lie. It is doubtful that the society can do without providing them the room and the platform to carry out their spin, deceive and make more promises that are more often than not broken at the very moment the promises are made.
But what is the alternative to listening to politicians? To not give them opportunity to lie? But it is for that very reason that politicians partly exist; to convince people to accept them for who they say they are and not exactly for who they are; to lift the society by words beyond what is possible and to make promises that make people feel good for a moment. The honest politician, as is well known, lives somewhere in Mars. The species on earth are yet to attain that character. So the society, democratic or otherwise, simply has no choice but to live
with politicians and politics. Put differently, living with lies is a part of life. Living the lie is however, another matter altogether.
Representative democracy is a work in perennial progress. It continues to regenerate itself and to strive through various mechanisms to hold politicians accountable to those who elected them in the first place. On their own part, politicians as a matter of rule, resort to all manner of tricks to obfuscate and block interrogation into their conduct in public offices. Unfortunately for the two sides – the electorate and the elected – there is no life for one in the absence of the other. And so while one side continues to seek to rein in the other side and to find out that which it wants to keep away from the public view, the other side never stops inventing ways and means to keep off all prying eyes in their affairs.
Steadily as democracy evolves, society must have come to terms with the reality that it is extremely difficult to hold down politicians. What do you do with a man whose character according to some observers permits him without qualms to say one thing in the morning, say a different thing at noon and deny both in the evening? But we still listen to them.
Mounting public debate for individuals seeking prime public offices is obviously one of the means through which society has sought to track and hold down the politician to some evidence. Of course, lies and deceptions have been known to fly off the elevated podium of many presidential debates, but then that is one of the ideas behind instituting debates for contenders to prime public offices. Lies and policy options enunciated by a candidate before the world on the presidential debate podium can more easily be held up against a politician than oblique, empty promises made on campaign trails.
There is of course, no Constitutional provision for participation in a presidential or governorship debate as one of the criteria for people to be elected to those prime offices. A candidate is therefore, at liberty to decline to participate in such a debate. President Muhammadu Buhari declined to participate in the presidential debate leading to the 2015 elections.
The recent release by the John Momoh-led Presidential Debate Group of their schedule for presidential and vice presidential debates for the 2019 elections have engendered side debates about the main debate which are quite interesting. The handlers of President Buhari are yet to commit their principal to the debate. The reason for their reluctance have not been made very clear yet. Will President Buhari for the second time decline to participate in a presidential debate? Heading to the 2015 elections, Buhari was a candidate pitched against incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. His team had alleged discomfort at what they see as possibility of the debate organizers not being neutral and fair. The debate organizers tried to assure them of their neutrality, but they refused to be pacified. Heading towards 2019 elections as incumbent, can the President’s team convincingly sustain such apprehension about the organizers of the debate anymore?
The truth about presidential debates is that their actual impact on the electoral fortune of a candidate remains indeterminate. Even in USA, given to razzmatazz and media frenzy about such events, the direct correlation between what voters actually do with their ballot on Election Day and how candidates performed on the debate series is yet to be factually established. It seems easy to point at how Ronald Reagan deployed his Hollywood persona to outshine Walter Mondale or how charismatic Bill Clinton crushed older Bob Dole or how Barack Obama called upon his gift of gab and relaxed mien to work against a much more decorated veteran in John McCain first and later Senator Mitt Romney. But in all those cases there were other weighty social and political factors on ground on top of which the debate performances stood.
What is not in doubt however is that the electorate wants to have a feel of whoever declares serious interest in leading them. It is true that a substantial chunk of Nigeria is still largely illiterate and rural, in spite of the impression created by vocal urban elite and a bubbling media industry. Even at that the rural Nigerians are becoming sophisticated in leaps. A lot more of the citizens want to directly hear their leaders and prospective leaders; gauge their respective warmth and humanness assess their grasp of issues in governance, confidence and charisma and all those features that cold statistics and prepared texts cannot offer. Make no mistakes about it, people do not need to be university professors and experts to know that someone before them is either benign or petulant, cold or warm, fake or real. Ordinary folks read these characteristics very well and this, substantially is what debates like the presidential debate offer.
While the debate about the debate may be useful in helping the Debate Group fine tune their procedures and mechanism for organizing the presidential debate, it may not be useful to the society at large if it aims to any extent to deny any candidate and the electorate an invaluable opportunity for a direct engagement. Every candidate needs to connect with the electorate. And the electorate surely needs to have a rounded feel of the package they may take home in due course. For the society especially, the presidential debate provides an uncommon means of holding down a politician to his recorded policy preferences, promises and ideologies over which he can be called to task down the line.
The presidential debate may not exactly propel a candidate to win an election, but it sure helps the electorate to know the options before them. Those who cannot watch the debates will surely hear about it for sure. The side debates are interesting quite alright, but the main debate is the real deal.