Political debates offer numerous benefits to voters, but they do not occur in many countries around the world, depriving citizens of an important opportunity to hear candidates explain their position on issues relevant to the country’s development.
Within established democracies like the United States and the United Kingdom, the “debate” about the impact of political debates is in no danger of ceasing anytime soon. Debates are often seen as key moments in political campaigns from the local to the national level — a chance for candidates to present their policy proposals directly to voters. Our country’s long history with radio and televised candidate debates has also provided us with a plethora of research on the impact debates have on voter preference. As this journalist resource on the topic demonstrates, nearly every aspect of political debates – particularly Presidential debates – has been researched, dissected, and analyzed in one form or another. Interestingly enough there is even research on the effect high definition television (HDTV) has on voters’ perceptions of candidates.
While research comes to divergent conclusions on how exactly voters are affected, the benefits of debates to democracy are clear. They force candidates to define specific policy platforms; provide voters with access to information they may not otherwise receive; and create another layer of accountability for public officials.
Throughout its 30 year history, CIPE has worked with the private sector and economic think tanks around the world to enhance the debate of public policies before, during, and after important elections. Over the past five years CIPE and its partners in Latin America and the Caribbean have sought to take advantage of increasing access to radio, television, and the Internet to counter the region’s long history of populist politics in which candidates campaigned heavily on their personality and political connections and very little on actual policy platforms.
In Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, and Paraguay, CIPE supported programs that raised demand for public policy debate during electoral seasons and, in the case of Colombia and Paraguay, actually organized Presidential debates.
CIPE worked with the Foundation for Higher Education and Development (Fedesarollo) to press decision makers in Colombia to move beyond general discussions to their actual platforms during the 2010 election period. Fedesarrollo, one of Colombia’s leading think tanks, organized three debates on key economic issues with presidential and vice-presidential candidates, providing an opportunity to present clear and detailed policy plans for their future administrations. More than 1,000 people attended the third debate at the Bogotá Chamber of Commerce and the event was broadcast live by the television station Canal Capital to its 3.2 million cable subscribers nationwide.
CIPE also supported the Center for the Implementation of Policies Promoting Equity and Growth (CIPPEC) in raising public demand and expectation for a presidential debate in the run-up to Argentina’s general election in 2011. Due to wide media coverage in national newspapers, online news outlets, radio and television, the project reached a broad audience. In addition, due to focused presentations of the topic to target audiences, CIPPEC was able to speak directly to experts and opinion leaders in the fields directly related to the main challenges and possible policy alternatives for the next administration.
The lead opposition candidates, Ricardo Alfonsín, Hermes Binner, and Eduardo Duhalde, all declared a belief that it was necessary to promote a high-quality electoral debate that places government programs and policies at the center of the campaign. Unfortunately, it was not possible to gain incumbent president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s participation because she already held a wide lead in the months leading up to the election and participating in a debate was seen by her campaign as a risk with no upside. A debate without the front-runner would have been insignificant. However, through this project CIPPEC planted a seed for future debates.
While candidate debates are not new to Mexico, the Mexican political system has historically enabled candidates to avoid discussion of important public policy topics due to a lack of incentives for accountability. During the 2012 presidential campaign cycles, CIPE worked with the Center of Research for Development (CIDAC) on a campaign to provide evidence-based analysis to the public and candidates for office and to open new channels for dialogue between citizens and policymakers. More than 60,000 people read CIDAC’s weekly political analyses and a series of web videos focusing on a key policy priority – justice reform – were viewed over 35,000 times. CIDAC’s analyses proved useful for candidates as they formed platforms to discuss during two televised debates.
Finally, in Paraguay CIPE supported the Development in Democracy Foundation (DENDE) in addressing the lack of policy dialogue during Paraguay’s electoral campaigns earlier in 2013. Through a series of working groups DENDE initiated a dialogue between the private sector and broader society that allowed it to build, with broad democratic participation, public policy proposals to be presented to the presidential candidates. In March 2013, DENDE organized two official Paraguayan presidential debates with the participation of the four leading candidates. Roughly 3.4 million Paraguayans viewed or listened to the two presidential debates — 71 percent of whom claimed it was the first time they had heard the candidates’ economic policy proposals.
The results from Paraguay underscore the importance of candidate debates in creating a healthy democratic society. There is a common phrase in democratic development that “democracy doesn’t end at the ballot box.” I say that democracy doesn’t even begin with the ballot box because the process of voting does not in itself indicate democracy if citizens do not have access to reliable information about their options. In that respect, candidate debates – despite their imperfections – often provide voters with information that they can use to perform their civic duty effectively and contribute to creating or maintaining a healthy democratic society.
Brent Ruth is Program Officer for Latin America & the Caribbean at CIPE.