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15 December, 2011

Kenya's Presidential Debates

Now that the Margaretta wa Gacheru billionaire real estate mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump has jumped on the presidential campaign bandwagon and offered to host the next GOP presidential debate, the debates are increasingly being seen as a "circus" rather than a serious venue where issues of political import are addressed and the candidates revealed to the voting public.

The Debates have already proved to be calamitous for Republican candidates like Texas Governor Rick Perry (who is almost as inarticulate as the previous Texan who ran for President, GW Bush) and Herman Cain who recently suspended his campaign due to the spate of allegations of sexual impropriety that Candidate Cain had engaged in over the past few years.

Nonetheless, the debates have allowed the American people to see for themselves what qualities they like or dislike about the candidates.

Ever since 1960 when the first presidential debate was held, between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, most political pundits believe that debate actually won Kennedy the presidency. Kennedy was far more telegenic than Nixon: he was more handsome, youthful, articulate and calm before the television cameras than Nixon who looked pasty and pale, ill at ease and arrogant.

And while there was an element of superficiality that came into the presidential campaign once television was able to transform candidates into performing artists, the debates also allowed the public to see how issues of significance were tackled by each presidential aspirant.

It is the issue orientation of the Presidential Debates (PD) that interests the Kenyan Community Abroad (KCA) and has inspired the group to advocate for a series of presidential debates preceding the 2012 Kenyan National Elections.

"Up to now, so much political campaigning in Kenya is personality-driven," said Mkawasi Mcharo Hall, former KCA chair and PD project director.

"We'd like to see the level of political discourse elevated above personality to where the candidates address real issues affecting Kenyans' everyday lives," she added.

KCA is the diasporan group that was instrumental in lobbying for the new Kenyan Constitution to include such issues as Dual Citizenship and Absentee Voting Rights for Kenyans living overseas.

"Both of those items are in the new constitution," said Mcharo Hall, who meets regularly with KCA members who, like her, are keen to see the 2012 elections go well.

Highly organized and attuned to the current political climate in Kenya, the KCA team that is advocating for Kenyan Presidential Debates includes lawyers, engineers, researchers and teachers.


Based in the Washington, DC area, KCA initially introduced the Presidential Debates idea last February at a meeting held at the Kenyan Embassy for Alice Nderitu of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission to meet Kenyans living in the Diaspora. Both the Kenyan Ambassador Elkanah Odemo and NCIC's Ms. Nderitu liked the idea, but both left it to the KCA to coordinate the project.

Critics of the project have questioned the capacity of KCA to coordinate such a major event from outside of Kenya. But the group is undaunted.

"We feel there's an advantage to organizing presidential debates from outside of Kenya since we're not caught up in the day to day political dramas that can easily cloud one's objectivity," Mcharo Hall said.

Of course, KCA will need to coordinate with local media to get the Kenyan Presidential Debates on prime time TV, just as they are in the US. But the diasporans are confident that once local media see the extent of public interest in even one Presidential Debate, they will be clamoring to get the contract to air such a popular public service event.

KCA may also need to look for sponsorship, but the team doesn't see a problem in that area either.

The biggest challenge could be to get all the candidates to come together to participate in one, two or more presidential debates. But Mcharo Hall doesn't foresee a problem in that regard either.

Asked if she wanted to speculate who would take part in the first set of debates, she rattled off a slew of well-known names, omitting two of the more high profile politicians, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto. She said the ICC verdict will have a good deal to do with whether they run for the top office or not.

In the meantime, she counted no less than seventeen prospective candidates. "And the numbers seem to be increasing by the day."

The numbers do not overwhelm the KCA members. Instead, they believe a series of Kenyan Presidential Debates is something that can contribute to defusing any volatility in the political climate.

"One big advantage Kenyans in the Diaspora have is that we have lived in 'democratic spaces'. We have witnessed the State's protection of minority rights. We have seen the rights of Opposition protesters protected by the rule of law," Mcharo Hall added.

Not that presidential debates can provide the panacea to defuse all voters frustration; but the KCA definitely believe that dialogue and debate are means of elevating the political discourse and transforming the 2012 Election.

Kenya Presidential Debates

~ Margaretta wa Gacheru, Ph.D
Civil Societies Coordinator, KPD ~

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