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19.12.2007 Feature Article

Institutionalizing Political Debates As A Vital Part Of Our Democratic Culture

Political debates are or should be part of our democratic dispensation. In several advanced democratic nations, notably the USA, there is an accepted framework and established rules with a commission to run it. It is a privilege the citizenry of every democratic state deserves, voters should demand it as a right, and political leaders should see it as a duty.

It is in the light of this that I call on the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) and the Centre for Democratic Governance (CDG) to help organize presidential debates for the 2008 general elections. I hope this will be institutionalized and made permanent part of every general elections. Political debates are an effective way to inform and involve voters in the political process as it provides one of the best possible information to viewers and listeners but viewers and listeners are also reminded to be skeptical and make their own informed and educated opinion about what is said in order to win their votes.

Organizing or hosting a political debate needs careful planning and the Commission on Presidential Debates (USA) provides some important guidelines: budget, debate hall, furniture/stage, electrical, candidate negotiation, format, audience, noise/heckling, security, printed materials, labor, videos/transcripts, internet, community interest, cameras, media representation, safety, debate site, post debate activities etc are all addressed on their website. In the case of Ghana, since this is a relatively new project, I hope the organizers will familiarize themselves with the useful advice, suggestions, and recommendations herewith to have an objective debate.

Budget

On budget for example, it is recommended that though government can help, it should not underwrite the cost since that gives the impression the process is controlled by the government. The organizers may wish to identify sponsors both local and international and acknowledge their assistance. Having the event broadcast on TV and radio make sure that it reaches a large number of voters. Providing videotapes, audiocassettes, and written transcripts of the debate and making them available as quickly as possible after the debate will make it reach even a larger percentage of voters. These can be sold to help recoup part of the expenditure in organizing the debates if possible or made available to civic groups in their voter education programs.

Format

In organizing a political debate, one of the most important things to consider is the format for the debate. The debate sponsor, organizer, and the participants must agree on the terms of the debate. Needless to say, debate organizers must be firm and fair. Different formats have been used in the US presidential debates over the years. These include the town hall meetings (when the audience asks the questions), the panel approach (when debate participants answer questions from a number of panel members), and the single moderator (when one person asks questions) this has the advantage of focusing the audience attention on the candidates instead of the panel participants. Regardless of which format is selected, organizers need to focus candidates attention on the issues.
Selection of Questioners:

A panel of questioners whom the organizers and the debate participants trust to be professional and fair. A representative audience selected by pollsters to avoid packing the debate hall with supporters or sympathizers of a particular candidate is suggested. If the debate is being broadcast live on TV and radio, there must be a direct link to viewers in remote studios, or by e-mail, fax, or phone, so you can have a mass write in of questions selected on the basis of volume of evidence for the candidates to answer. Organizers should consider setting time limits for questions and answers. Questioners must keep their questions limited to one topic and candidates can have say two minutes to answer and one minute for rebuttals. Properly timing the opening/closing statements, questions, answers, and rebuttals is very important especially in a broadcast debate, so says the Commission on Presidential Debates (USA).Select a responsible person to keep the time and establish an easy system to let the moderator and the candidates know when their time is up. The presidential debates in the US use a series of traffic lights within a clear view of the candidates to inform them how much time they have left. It is important to keep in mind that mistakes in timing can lead to claims of unfairness - the last thing a sponsor needs after the debate.
Other Issues to Consider:

When it comes to the order of the speakers in a political debate, there is no incumbency advantage here. Who speaks first and who finishes up? Flipping a coin provides a good way to determine and if there are more than two participants, draw straws. Good behaviour on the part of the audience is vital. So establish rules of audience conduct and enforce them during the debate. If you anticipate heckling or other disorderly behaviour, make adequate provisions for security. Media accreditation is important as political debates are news. A media center can be made available for candidates to meet the press and answer any questions they might have in a post debate environment.
Conclusion:

It is my sincere hope that Election 2008 will be fought on the issues and that the Centre for Democratic Governance and the Institute for Economic Affairs will both help facilitate the discussion of the issues. I wish they could translate their intentions into reality and put together a series of political debates not just for presidential candidates but also for vice presidential candidates, and possibly aspiring MPs. I recommend that the first debate among presidential candidates must be a general one articulating candidates vision for Ghana. Subsequent ones, should be issue specific; things like how to reverse the deteriorating educational standards in the country, Candidates vision for bridging the gap or the educational divide between say children in public JSS in the rural areas, and private JSS (International Schools/Preparatory Schools) in say Accra and Kumasi. Corruption for example has been found to be a major hindrance to our economic development and keeps the majority of Gha naians in abject poverty, so what plans do candidates have to address this social canker and improve the lives of Ghanaians. Specific issues like education, the economy, the enviroment, Transportation, Agriculture, etc. Moderators should play hardball with candidates, no general plans and rhetorics without specifics. No empty promises here. Candidates should not be made to get away with rhetorics like "I will create 100,000 jobs in my first month in office".

Moderators and questioners should demand how will candidate A or B do that. The SPECIFICS. At the risk of being accused of not being fair or even "undemocratic" I do sincerely wish that the major debates are limited to the three leading Presidential candidates (with a reasonable chance of capturing the presidency in December 2008), this will mean the NPP, NDC and the CPP presidential candidates. An alternative way, will be to allow all those who want to run for president in 2008 and have met the requirements ...

Ben Ofosu-Appiah,
Tokyo Japan.
The author is a senior social and political analyst and also a policy strategist based in Tokyo, Japan. He welcomes your comments.

Ben Ofosu-Appiah
Ben Ofosu-Appiah, © 2007

This author has authored 133 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: BenOfosuAppiah

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