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How debates shape voters’ perception

By Emmanuel Onwubiko

 

Few days back, the Nigerian election debate group drawn from a broad spectrum of key leaders of the media industry in both the private and public sectors organized a high profile presidential debates and five out of the over three dozen contestants of the presidential poll were invited but only three turned up.

 

The incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari failed to turn up. He gave a tenuous excuse for not honouring the invitation.  His main rival of the Peoples Democratic party Alhaji Atiku Abubakar who is a former Vice President of Nigeria turned up at the venue but when he noticed the absence of the incumbent President he too withdrew. Some have argued against holding Presidential debates but most others endorse the move.  Plato isa respected founder of Philosophy and he too was not comfortable with the idea of even democracy which he regarded as a government ofanything goes and if he is to be here with us he may not like the entire of a political debate which i believed is etymologically structured after the origin of democracy in Ancient Greece.  The below were reported by cotemporary philosophers as reoresenting Plato’s views of democracy.

 

“Democracy is a further degeneration, said Plato, for its principles of equality and freedom reflect the degenerate human characters whose whole range of appetites are all pursued with equal freedom. To be sure, Plato’s concept of democracy, and his criticism of it, were based upon his firsthand experience with the special form democracy took in the small city-state of Athens.”

 

Going further tge Philosophical commentators writing on Plato stated that: “Here democracy was direct in that all citizens had the right to participate in the government. The Athenian Assembly consisted, theoretically at least, of all citizens over eighteen years of age. Thus, Plato did not have in mind modern liberal and representative democracy. What he saw in his day was rather a mode of direct popular government that clearly violated his notion that the rulership of a state should be in the hands of those with the special talent and training for it”.

 

What produced this spirit of equality was the legitimizing of all the appetites under the plutocracy where the aim of life was to become as rich as possible and, said Plato, “this insatiable craving would bring about the transition to democracy,” for “a society cannot hold wealth in honour and at the same time establish self-control in its citizens.”

 

Even the dogs in a democracy Plato says, exhibit equality and independence by refusing to move out of the way in the streets. It is, however, when the rich and poor find themselves in a contest under plutocracy that the turning point is reached, for “when the poor win, the result is democracy.”

 

“Then, “liberty and free speech are rife everywhere; anyone is allowed to do what he likes.” Now, “you are not obliged to be in authority or to submit to authority, if you do not like it.” All this political equality and freedom stem from a soul whose order has been shattered. It is a soul whose appetites are now all equal and free and act as a “mob” of passions. The life of liberty and equality declares that “one appetite is as good as another and all must have their equal rights.”

 

“But the continuous indulgence of the appetites leads one inevitably to the point where a single master passion will finally enslave the soul. One cannot yield to every craving without finally having to yield to the strongest and most persistent passion. At his point we say that a person is under the tyranny of his master passion. Likewise, in the state, the passion for money and pleasures leads the masses to plunder the rich. As the rich resist, the masses seek out a strong man who will be their champion. But this man demands and acquires absolute power and makes the people his slaves, and only later do the people realize to what depths of subjugation they have fallen. This is the unjust society, the enlargement of the unjust soul. The natural end of democracy is despotism.”

 

One of the World’s most respected  news magazine The Economist in March 2016 wrote that: “The ostensible purpose of an election campaign debate is to give candidates a chance to share their views and attract possible voters.”

 

The Economist says Political debates have a long tradition: in 1858 a lawyer named Abraham Lincoln challenged Senator Stephen Douglas for his seat in a series of seven debates in Illinois. One candidate would open with a 60 minute speech, and the other would give a 90-minute response.

 

The first candidate would then close the debate with yet another 30 minute speech. Although Mr. Lincoln went on to lose the Senate race, the debates elevated his national stature and set him up for a successful presidential run against Mr. Douglas two years later.

 

Most debates, they argue, however, have far less impact.

 

Academic research suggests that although presidential debates can inform a person’s view, they tend to do little to change it. In their book “The Timeline of Presidential Elections”, political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien looked at every American election featuring televised debates between 1960 and 2008 and found that the polling numbers of presidential candidates leading up to debates were almost perfectly correlated with their polling numbers shortly afterwards.

 

The Economist reports that most research looks at the later stages of elections, when parties’ candidates have been chosen.

 

“Debates almost certainly matter more during the primaries for two reasons: first, voters will almost never know who all the candidates in a presidential primary are, which means there is more scope for shaping their perceptions. Second, many voters are staunch partisans; it is far easier to convince someone to choose another candidate from their own party than to defect altogether.

 

In Britain, there are concerted moves to legislate Political debates into law.  The opinion poll is being coordinated by one of the largest European broadcasting behemoth- Sky News TV.

 

Jon Craig, chief political correspondent of Sky News wrote that campaign is rapidly gaining momentum over calls for an independent commission to run TV debates between party leaders ahead of general elections.

 

He reports that Jeremy Corbyn, Amber Rudd and Vince Cable are among those supporting the campaign to ensure voters are better informed ahead of a vote.

 

Since it was launched on, he affirmed, MPs, former parliamentarians such as Sir Nick Clegg and influential groups, including the Electoral Reform Society, have signed up.

 

The following MPs have backed the campaign so far: Amber Rudd, Conservative; Peter Bone, Conservative; Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader; Vince Cable, Lib Dem leader; Caroline Lucas, former Green Party leader; Hannah Bardell, SNP – on behalf of the whole party.

 

Other politicians who have backed it are: Nick Clegg, ex-Lib Dem leader; Natalie Bennett, ex-Green Party leader

 

Labour leader Mr. Corbyn told Sky News: “I welcome any move that will guarantee general election debates so that voters can hear directly from those putting themselves forward to lead the country.”

 

Other senior MPs said TV debates “energized” election campaigns and should become a “permanent fixture” instead of being arranged in “backroom deals” between politicians and broadcasters.

 

Under the Sky News proposals, in which we call for head-to-head debates between the leaders of the main political parties, a Leaders’ Debate Commission (LDC) would: Set the format and rules of the debates; Handle moderation; Outline the criteria for political party participation; Ensure the objectivity of audiences; Steer negotiations between broadcasters and parties

 

Following Sky News successfully lobbying for TV debates in the 2010 election campaign, three head-to-head clashes were held between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

 

Historically, as recollected by the reporter, since the TV debates were successfully lobbied, broadcasters and politicians have failed to agree on terms and there were no head-to-head debates between the leaders of the main parties in the 2015 or 2017 general election campaigns.

 

Sky News editor-at-large Adam Boulton has delivered a letter outlining the proposals to Theresa May at 10 Downing Street and Conservative sources have indicated they are considering their response.

 

The Sky campaign also includes a petition to parliament. After 10,000 signatures, petitions get a response from the government and after 100,000 they are considered for a Commons debate.

 

The first party leader to back the Sky News campaign was the Lib Dems’ Sir Vince Cable, who praised the channel’s 2010 TV election debates and said: “They energized the whole election campaign.

 

“It’s surely right that the ground rules should be decided in a non-political independent environment of the kind you suggest.

 

“We should now be putting this structure in place so there’s no argy-bargy in the few weeks before the next general election.”

 

Sir Nick, another former Lib Dem leader, wrote in an article for Sky News: “These debates should be an immovable part of a general election in this country and a key component of our democratic process.

 

“They should not be in the gift of whichever political party is in power, or whichever politician is ahead in the polls.”

 

Former Tory home secretary Ms Rudd, who took Theresa May’s place in a debate when the prime minister refused to attend, said: “I think the public do expect it and I think they’re entitled to it.

 

“I think an independent commission is the only way to go.”

 

Joining Ms Rudd is leading Eurosceptic Tory MP Peter Bone, who said the plan is closely aligned to one he has already tabled in a private member’s bill which is due to have its second reading in the Commons in March.

 

When he first tabled the bill, its sponsors included the former TV presenter Esther McVey, now in the cabinet as work and pensions secretary, and another veteran Eurosceptic Tory MP, Sir Christopher Chope.

 

Mr Bone now hopes to attract more sponsors.

 

“These debates should not be left to the political parties,” he said.

 

“They should be decided by an independent commission and we need to get this sorted out, not in the frenzy of a general election but before.”

 

For the Scottish National Party, media spokeswoman Hannah Bardell MP welcomed the Sky News campaign, saying the party has always supported leaders debates and other parties should “catch up”.

 

She said the SNP would support an independent commission as long as there was “fair representation for all parties”, claiming they had been “stitched up” in the past and shut out from debates.

 

Former Green Party leader Caroline Lucas has also backed the campaign, saying debates should not be based on “back-room deals between politicians and broadcasters”.

 

Her successor, Natalie Bennett, added her support but said a leaders debate could not just be between England’s two largest parties.

 

James Harding, head of BBC News until last January, has also backed the campaign, telling Sky News: “The argument is not about who’s going to win, the argument is about politics and public trust.

 

“It’s about saying that all our politicians reach the largest number of people.”

 

Willie Sullivan, senior director at the Electoral Reform Society, said a leaders debate is “essential for the health of our democracy”.

 

“If a politician believes they are qualified to run the country, they should be willing and able to express the reasons why to the nation,” he added.

 

From the business world, retailer and former Dragon’s Den star Theo Paphitis has signalled his support for the campaign.

 

He tweeted: “The voting public deserves to hear from the politicians that could be their future PM.

 

“The politicians should be accountable and challenged on their policies…more so now than ever! #MakeDebatesHappen.”

 

Private Eye editor and satirist Ian Hislop backed the campaign, telling Sky News that politicians “should be answerable including on television which is the media where most people will see them”.

 

Announcing the launch of the campaign, John Ryley, head of Sky News, said: “This is all about doing what’s best for the voting public.

 

“Sky News, along with the other broadcasters, changed the political landscape in this country by creating the first leaders’ debates eight years ago.

 

“Sadly, it stands as an exception rather than the watershed it should have been.

 

“Political maneuvering and failings by the broadcasters has allowed that momentum to be lost.

 

“Sky News believes an independent commission should set the terms for debates in future, to inform and engage the voting public with a head-to-head debate between the two political leaders battling it out for Number 10.”

 

This writer is enthused by these energetic works done by sky news on the Imperative of election debates and hereby suggests that Nigeria legislate compulsory Political election debates into law as soon as possible. Nigerians of all walks of life should be encouraged to support constructive dialogues such as healthy debates.  The aforementioned Sky News coverage of the ongoing advocacy for a British election debate commission should be relocated in Nigeria.

 

*Emmanuel Onwubiko is head of Human rights Writers Association of Nigeria and blogs @ www.emmanuelonwubiko.com; www.huriwa.blogspot.com; www.huriwanigeria.com; www.thenigerianinsidernews.com

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