Debate, deliberation, democracy

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, November 16, 2015


Televised presidential candidates debates are no panacea for shortcomings of democracy, but countries that regularly hold debates tend to have stronger democracies than countries where candidates can get away with avoiding a confrontation their adversaries in front of television cameras.


The exercise of facing voters and responding to straightforward questions from journalists, voters and other candidates constitutes a strong form of democratic accountability and reminds candidates that election campaigns are a special form of job interview where voters get to select the leader who will be in charge of moving the country forward for an entire presidential term.


According to Adam Przeworski, democracies are systems whereby parties lose elections. The minimalist definition, advanced by the influential Polish political scientist, conditions democracy to the presence of competitive elections. In order to secure such competition, a system must provide voters with the opportunity to contrast and compare the different options in front of them. Because campaigns are filled with many different types of noise and distractions, candidates make ambiguous and confusing statements — with vague promises and non-committal policy proposals. Voters are often confused about which candidate will bring about better results, given the voters’ preferences. As candidates seek to convince different groups of voters, without alienating other groups, they carefully word their message to sound convincing without abandoning their non-committal safety zones.


Candidates often talk about the country they want to build rather than about the roadmap to get there. When electoral campaigns become polarized, candidates distort the positions of their rivals and cling onto statements made by their opponents to expose their weaknesses or caricature their positions. The dominant logic is that when voters are not fully satisfied with your position, using negative campaigning will make voters even less enthusiastic about your rivals and you will win the election as the lesser of two evils.


In a world where time is money, campaigns are often reduced to sound-bites and caricatures. That is why televised debates are so important in contemporary democracies. Although their format often does not allow for direct exchanges between candidates, having debates is much better than not having them. It is true that the range of topics needing to be covered is birnakky very wide and candidates do not have enough time to discuss specifics or question their opponents but debates serve an important accountability role in modern democracies. Candidates are forced to confront their rivals and get into direct exchanges on issues which have surfaced in the campaign.


Before a first-round vote, debates often lose meaning when there are many candidates. To protect themselves and confuse voters, frontrunners push for all candidates to be included. Runners-up push to limit the number of participants to concentrate the tension between those who lead the polls.


Building momentum

Due to the crowded field of candidates in the Republican primaries for the 2016 presidential nomination, debate organizers in the US (usually television or social networks) have struggled to find a balance between allowing the largest number of participants and allocating sufficient time to those who are doing better in polls. In other countries, the excessive number of candidates makes holding inclusive debates impossible. In Peru in 2006, there were 23 presidential candidates (including siblings Ollanta and Ulises Humala). In the October 25 presidential election in Haiti, there were 53. Naturally, that makes an inclusive debate impracticable. However, when there are few candidates — or when a country is about to hold a runoff election — presidential debates are much simpler to organize and more effective.

Although comparative data from different countries shows that most people who watch debates have already made up their minds before they see the candidates face off, there is enough to show that candidates who do well in debates motivate their supporters and give momentum to their campaigns. When debates have high television ratings, they also have an effect in tipping undecided voters.


Candidates spend a lot of time preparing for debates precisely because they know that a wrongly worded phrase or an improvised, thoughtless answer might significantly damage their aspirations. Clothing, postures, jokes and sound-bites are carefully planned and extensively practiced to maximize the objective of attracting new supporters and motivating sympathizers to get out and campaign.


Though already one of the most vibrant and intense democracies in Latin America, by holding its first two-candidate presidential debate Sunday, Argentina took a significant step forward in making its candidates more accountable to the electorate. It is true that a debate was held before the first-round vote in October but the absence of Daniel Scioli — who was then expected to win the presidency in the first round — limited the impact of the debate.


With a too-close-to-call runoff imminent (pre-electoral polls were notoriously wrong before the first round), Sunday’s debate might have tipped undecided voters in favour of Scioli or Macri. But the debate itself has established a precedent which will surely strengthen Argentine democracy by making televised debates a permanent feature in future presidential campaigns.