Debating the people, not other candidates

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, September 30, 2014


When frontrunners in presidential elections refuse to debate their opponents, democracy is ill-served. If a sitting president seeking re-election does not show up to nationally televised debates, those who denounce authoritarian practices will have powerful evidence to back their claims.


By refusing to debate his opponents ahead of the presidential election of October 12, Bolivia President Evo Morales is justifying those who question his democratic credentials. Though the head of state will likely win a clear majority of votes, his refusal has tainted the democratic process that Morales claims to support.


Morales, the longest-serving democratically-elected leader in Latin America, did not show to the only nationally televised presidential debate in Bolivia this past weekend. The reason presented by his improvized spokesperson — none other than a cabinet member — is that President Morales debates directly with the people, not with other candidates.


This ludicrous claim would easily win a contest for the worst populist phrase of 2014. The Morales camp has falsely argued that interactions with voters make up for the absence of a presidential debate. Both elements are essential to the democratic process. Talking with voters does not free a candidate from having to participate.


To be competitive, all candidates must aspire to run campaigns aimed at attracting voters and respond to their needs and wants. Among the things that voters want is a chance to compare the proposals and ideas of different candidates and to assess how they respond to similar questions. Just as consumers want to compare goods before they complete a purchase — assessing price, quality, looks and other attributes — voters need to be able to compare different candidates before making up their votes.


As television continues to be the main medium of communication between candidates and voters, having the opportunity to see candidates contrast their views, plans and proposals on television has become an essential component of a well-functioning democracy. A presidential campaign without a televised debate does not meet the basic standards of democracy.


In fact, there is probably no better indicator of an unleveled playing field than the refusal of a candidate to defend his or her views with those of other candidates in a nationally-televised debate organized by an independent network and conducted by journalists whose objective is to make it easier for voters to choose among the different options presented before them.


Because televised debates have become so central to the democratic process, candidates often strategize about when and under what conditions they should be held. Frontrunners always advocate for a debate with all the candidates (including those scoring low voting intentions in polls). After all, frontrunners know that a mediocre performance on their part — or a stellar performance by a rival — can change the course of events. Thus, the more time that goes to unimportant candidates, the less time there is for a frontrunner to make a mistake or for a key challenger to score some points.


Optimizing different objectives, candidates who are placed second or third in polls normally exert pressure to exclude smaller candidates from debates. For runner-ups, the debate is one of the few opportunities they will have to convince voters that they have better ideas and proposals than the frontrunner.


In countries with an independent press, a strong civil society and a tradition of free and fair elections, candidates have limited ability to influence when and how debates will be conducted. If the tradition is that only the top candidates participate in debates, no single person will get away with increasing the number of participants. Similarly, if the normal number of debates has always been three or more, frontrunners will have a hard time trying to hold fewer of them.


In countries where competitive elections have not been the norm, and where elections have not always been held on something closer to a level-playing field, frontrunners have an easier time evading a debate. When those frontrunners also claim to favour deepening and strengthening democracy, their refusal to participate speaks louder than their supposed commitment to democracy. In the case of Bolivia, because Evo Morales has already been accused of undermining democracy, specifically by removing term limits from the Constitution he championed when he first became president, the fact that Morales refused to take part in the only televised presidential debate validates those who accuse him of autocratic practices and those who denounce the absence of fair competition in the electoral process. After all, an incumbent president running for re-election is known to have advantages over challengers. Not participating in presidential debates further widens the starting incumbenct’s advantage.


To be sure, polls have continually reported that Morales has a decisive advantage ahead of the October 12 vote. Regardless of his participation in the debate, Morales is bound to easily win re-election. However, precisely because of his overwhelming lead, it is incomprehensible that a committed democrat would decline to participate. Morales’ refusal to face his rivals justifies those who question his democratic credentials.