Presidential debates enable voters to juxtapose the policy proposals of candidates, test the agility of candidates and make informed voting decisions to a large extent.
The first ever presidential debate in Ghana was organized by Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA-Ghana) in 2000. All presidential candidates took part in that debate, except the candidate of the then governing party, then Vice President Professor John Mills of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) who declined participation. The opposition candidate John Kufuor went on to win that year’s presidential election.
In 2004, the IEA again organized another presidential debate for presidential candidates of parties with representation in parliament. On this occasion, President Kufuor, who was seeking a renewal of his mandate, declined participation at the last minute, although he had earlier indicated his intention to participate. This was another case of an incumbent candidate failing to make an appearance. Professor Mills, this time around, running as an opposition candidate, took part. Nonetheless, Kufuor won the election.
In 2008, another election year, the IEA organized two presidential debates – one in the capital city of Accra and another in the northern city of Tamale. Further, a vice presidential debate was held too. On this occasion, there was no incumbent president of vice president seeking to be (re)elected. It turned out that none of the candidates qualified by the IEA and invited to participate declined. Each one of them participated, including ex-Vice President Mills who was making his third attempt at the polls. Professor Mills went on to win the 2008 election.
2012 presented an exception to the convention of abstention by incumbent presidents in debates. President John Mahama, who had assumed the presidency upon the death of President Mills, and was contesting for a substantive mandate, became the first sitting president to participate in a presidential debate. Although his participation was novel, it was also not strange as it was the first time he was putting himself up for election as president. He went on to win the election and served as president until he was voted out in the 2016 elections.
In the run up to the 2016 elections, the IEA, as had become their custom, set out to organize another debate. The NDC refused to allow their candidate, President Mahama to participate in the debate due to the party’s suspicion that the IEA was in bed with the then opposition NPP, whose candidate, Nana Akufo-Addo, was making his third successive bid for the presidency since 2008. NDC’s refusal to participate prompted the NPP to drag its feet, hence no debate. Regardless, NPP’s Akufo-Addo won the election.
2020 – Mahama calls for debate
In 2020, the IEA has been quiet about organizing another debate, perhaps due to the 2016 furor e. However, a constitutional body, National Commission on Civic Education (NCCE), attempted to fill the void but this was dead on arrival as the NPP counted itself out.
As we move closer to the election, Mahama, now running from opposition, has repeatedly called for a debate between himself and the incumbent Akufo-Addo. This time, Mahama and the NDC do not mind who the convenor is. The ex-President is willing to debate President Akufo-Addo anywhere any day. He does not even mind if the moderator is unilaterally chosen by Akufo-Addo. What has changed? Why did he and his party have a problem with the IEA platform in 2016 but now desperately calling for a debate?
Akufo-Addo, on the other hand, now comfortable government, is not keen to have a debate, having turned down an invitation from Imani Africa due to what he calls, “pre-arranged engagements.” While Mahama would have gladly participated in the debate organized by Imani, Akufo-Addo’s absence on the platform made him less enthusiastic, leading to his refusal to participate. Imani then organized one for candidates of minority political parties in collaboration with Joy News TV.
It is not surprising that Mahama, eager for a comeback, now wants a debate with Akufo-Addo, regardless of who the convenor or moderator is. Anybody in Akufo-Addo’s shoes (with the benefit of incumbency) would be suspicious of such a call, knowing that four years ago, the same person turned down an invitation to debate due to his party’s purported mistrust for the convenor. This plucks a hole in the genuineness of President Mahama’s call for debate.
To debate or not to debate
So far, one thing is certain! Incumbent candidates tend not to subject themselves to debates, whereas opposition candidates are almost always eager. This is because incumbent candidates have many platforms to sell their message. By virtue of being in office, their official engagements give them avenues for publicity without investing resources of their own.
On the other hand, opposition candidates have to mobilize diligently in order to get their message across. Any appearance on the same platform with the incumbent candidates elevates their message and to some extent, enhances their pedigree.
If we continue to allow the whimsical preferences of candidates and parties to determine whether we have presidential debates, Ghana will be robbed of a significant intellectual and accountability feature of our democratic journey. Going forward, we must find a way to institutionalize the presidential debates. First, the electorate must demand for it. Second, we must work towards a bipartisan institutionalization of the debates, as has been done in the United States.
By Terry Mante
The writer is a Fellow of Ghana Forward; a non-partisan political movement dedicated to promoting and advancing economic development, visionary leadership and good governance.
Email: [email protected]