Presidential debate long overdue


ON July 31, Zimbabweans will vote for their representatives for the presidency, the House of Assembly and Council seats without having had the opportunity to challenge them to explain their policies which, despite being good on paper, appear like wish lists unlikely to be realised in the next five years.Zimbabweans have a history of producing impressive blueprints and flattering statements of intent that have been a disappointment where it mattered most: The devil has always been on the implementation.
Following the launch of manifestos by the country’s main political parties, each one of them has been beating their own drums as having the most viable strategy to take the country forward. But what is glaringly lacking, as was the case with the previous elections, is that the electorate has once again been taken for granted by being denied the opportunity to throw questions at those aspiring to lead them, particularly at the highest level.
The presidential aspirants have not bothered to spare time for public debates to give people an opportunity to get responses to the many questions they have regarding their manifestos and other things they would want to understand about their policies. In the end, people will cast their ballots on July 31 without getting answers to some of their burning questions from the horses’ mouth.
This indicates that Zimbabwe is still to get to the stage whereby an election ceases to focus on party symbols, slogans or brute force but issues. In this age of Short-Message Service (SMS), Twitter, WhatsApp, e-mail and other social platforms, getting answers should just be a click of the button away. Thanks to the advancement in technology, communication is now a lot easier with each passing phase — we have now reached a stage whereby it is no longer unthinkable any more to canvass views from the electorate, wherever they are be it in Dotito, Mudzi, Mukaro, Chiendambuya or Ntabazinduna for tabling during public debates.
While there was an attempt by the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) in the last two elections to bring the parties running for office to explain their policies and respond to questions canvassed from the electorate, the public broadcaster lost the goodwill people had in it owing to their unprofessional conduct. The debates became a charade after the presidential candidates chose to stay away from them, preferring to send their representatives, some of whom were too junior within their party ranks. Also, debate tended to focus more on character assassination and trivia than real issues, while the moderators were horribly biased towards one of the contesting political parties.
Now that the political manifestos are out, this should be the opportunity for the public broadcaster to stage a real presidential debate that features all the presidential candidates so that all the questions on the electorate’s lips can finally get responses before the polls.
The political manifestos unveiled by ZANU-PF and the MDC-T are pledging heaven on earth without necessarily delving into the nitty-gritty’s leading up to the creation of that promised paradise.
The conclusion to be drawn from this is that the political parties  have gone out of their way to dream about flowery things that appeal to the suffering masses and, once they have been voted into office, the manifestos would join the long list of other documents gathering dust in certain offices because they were merely meant to deceive people into believing that something would be done to change their dire circumstances.
In the absence of specifics regarding what exactly they intend to do to achieve what they have set for themselves to accomplish, the manifestos may not be worth the paper they are written on. To prove us wrong, the presidential candidates should avail themselves for public debate to convince the electorate that indeed the future of this country is safe in their hands.
Presidential debates are an important platform whereby those aiming for public office should demonstrate their willingness to be accountable to citizens by taking time to respond to their queries. Such platforms present them with the opportunity to get to tell people their opinions on matters; what they will do once elected into office; what is going on in their country and what will happen in the future as well as what they will do about it.
Overall, presidential debates give citizens a good feel of the candidate’s plan, determining if they will be good leaders. They also can give some insights into the personalities and characters of the candidates.
Hate them or love them, the Americans have been models in public debates dating as far back as the 1950s when Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln were candidates for the Senate for Illinois. That tradition has been passed on from one generation to the other with Bar ack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney tearing each other apart in no-holds barred debates aired ahead of last year’s election.
Closer to home, Kenyans have made commendable steps in giving meaning to their elections and ensuring that they focus on issues. Ahead of the March elections, Kenyans conducted their first ever presidential debate whereby millions of people had an opportunity to listen to their aspiring presidential leaders as they answered questions submitted by ordinary citizens via social media platforms such as SMS and e-mail.
Kenyans had to take this route to ensure that their people debate bread and butter issues given that the previous election in late 2007 saw widespread violence when both the losing candidate and election observers alleged the results had been skewed by vote rigging. Over 1 200 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were internally displaced in what became Kenya’s most severe national crisis.
Zimbabweans face more or less similar challenges as they go into the elections in view of the fact that the previous plebiscite claimed more than 200 lives, while thousands were displaced. Against such a background and in light of concerns regarding the conditions under which the forthcoming elections would be held, Zimbabwe does not need to re-invent the wheel to set a good example. It is important for Zimbabweans to do whatever they can to avoid a repeat of the 2008 contested election and this involves getting those aiming for higher office to sit around the same table and interact with the electorate as happened in Kenya among other things.
Perhaps, this could be an opportunity for the bungling ZBC to redeem itself.

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