In a statement issued this week, the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) announced its decision not to participate in the debates being organized by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in the run-up to this year’s election.
When the IEA launched the 2016 edition of Presidential Debates, it provided justification; “That the preamble of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana and its first article reposes the sovereignty of Ghana in the will of the people of Ghana. And that the Debates are an expression of that sovereignty.”
From the onset it must be made clear that the Constitution does not, in any provision, make it mandatory for either political parties or individual aspirants for high public offices, engage in formal debates organized by the IEA or for that matter any other institution.
There are many ways candidates can put their cases/messages before electorates and this depends on their strategies and constraints. Televised debates are neither sacrosanct nor foolproof. Indeed, over the years, televised political debates have developed into fully-fledged reality shows where aspirants are pitted against one another and in their desire to score knockout points exhibit nothing but ‘nastiness’ in the form of verbal pugilism.
The just ended debates in the US Presidential primaries is an example of all that is wrong with political reality shows camouflaged as “Debate”.
It is blatantly untrue when the IEA states that, “On the whole, the debates will help focus campaign on issues rather than personalities. This will help defuse political tension.”
It was observed by many that after the last Presidential debate held in Accra prior to the 2012 Election, one of the aspirants was so livid that he would not even acknowledge the post-debate courtesies of another aspirant. That can hardly be said to be a political tension diffuser!
The definitive forerunner of these televised debates are arguably the one between US Presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in the early sixties. There were no knockout punches but pundits agree generally that candidate Kennedy edged out his opponent merely because of how he came across on television: young, energetic and confident.
That is how whimsical debates can also be. Form can completely overshadow substance. The IEA must therefore not make a fetish of televised debates.
But if we must, there is a constitutional body with that mandate. That is, the National Commission for Civic Education (NCCE) which has over the years been organizing democracy and good governance programmes, reaching out to different constituencies around the country.
Its mandate is such that it needs no television “ratings” for its raison d’etre and can therefore deliver without the need to restore any unconstitutional headline grabbing antics.
Even as civil society groups continue to play their part in Ghana’s democratic work-in-progress, the time has now come for Ghana to facilitate the NCCE adequately to play its rightful role in matters relating to the advancement of democracy in Ghana.
With regard to accountability, the Constitution is very clear about how the political process should proceed: Through the peoples’ representatives in Parliament.
The President, for example, is required to present a Sessional Address every first quarter of his mandate. This he does on the floor of Parliament, which is then debated exhaustively not only by Parliamentarians but also citizens in general, through the country’s free and unfettered media. The President is accountable to the PEOPLE, which he does all year round not only during the three or so months of an election campaign period. He most definitely is not accountable to the IEA.
A President’s accountability is what he can show in terms of development in general and the leadership provided at trying periods and decisions taken that will lead to progress. These are points unique to a sitting President which cannot and must not be overshadowed by reality show sound bites.
It is important, for the avoidance of doubt, that things are clarified, in order not to create the misleading impression that it is only a television debate that can raise the issues. The NDC is within its rights and constitutional obligations to turn down an invitation to participate in the programmes of any institution other than that mandated by the Constitution. Debates are not by force…