Was the Presidential debate about Form or Substance?

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By Frank Tumwebaze

As a regular political commentator, I followed the highly publicised presidential debate with keen interest. I was invited to be part of the listening audience at Serena but couldn’t physically make it because of the campaign outreaches we are currently involved in out of the Capital city.

I however watched the debate. My anxiety all along was about hearing from the various presidential candidates how they clearly understand Uganda’s bottlenecks that each of them seeks to fix if elected. The debate unfortunately was far from this.

It was largely dominated by the usual emotive pronouncements of people like Besigye against the Person of President Museveni. Worst of all; was the man always credited for calmness Amama Mbabazi ,when he lost it and veered off to trade into indecent personal attacks against my sister Hon Betty Amongi and another unnamed woman leader he described as a ‘childless woman’. These women leaders were not even part of the debate to defend themselves. It was sad. Shockingly, the moderators never rebuked him for digressing and disorientation. I will ask my friend Allan why he covered up this blunder.

Candidate during the first ever live presidential debate in Uganda

Candidate during the first ever live presidential debate in Uganda

I hope Ugandans will probe him further on views that concern respect for women. In his shameless rant to people who had no right to defend themselves on the podium, Mbabazi demonstrated the highest level of insensitivity and zerosomeness.

Instead of compassion, Mbabazi offered callousness. Is being childless, a moral or political issue to contest on? Was this the most critical national issue that he had to offer to the female gender? This confirms only one thing about his electoral promises. That all the talk in his manifesto about respect for women is a lie and a mask to cone unsuspecting Ugandans.

What does this say about the leadership character and authenticity of Hon Amama Mbabazi? What does the foregoing transgressions and lack of policy focus mean for the debate? In fact, after the debate, I expected the organizers out of humility, to be sensitive to the fury caused by the irresponsible speech of some of their panelists and extend an apology to those who were unfairly attacked. Hype about the debate Before the debate, there was so much hype about it as the first ever-historic presidential debate.

The hype and excitement unfortunately so much given by the media did not bring out the core issues Ugandans wanted or expected various contending candidates to pronounce their policy prescriptions on. The debate didn’t live up to its bidding and the hyperbole quickly faded into oblivion. And because the debate did not stimulate a conversation around issues that matter, there was even no follow up commentary and debate ensuing in the media and other foras thereafter.

President Yoweri Museveni while campaigning in Kamwenge recently, he did not attend the debate

President Yoweri Museveni while campaigning in Kamwenge recently, he did not attend the debate

How effective are presidential debates generally?

Much as there hasn’t been any consensus built in various scholarly works about whether presidential debates can be game changers in presidential politics globally, the question of substance that the various contenders articulate, plays a big part in as far as giving meaning to those debates is concerned.

Indeed, scholars who have looked most carefully at the data have found that, when it comes to shifting enough votes to decide the outcome of the election, presidential debates have rarely, if ever, mattered. But there are varying reasons advanced. Common of all,is the question of substance versus form. If the debate is highly focused on substantive issues, it becomes more effective in changing political numbers. And the reverse is true.

For example, a more careful study by political scientist James Stimson finds little evidence of game changers in the United States presidential campaigns between 1960 and 2000. Stimson argues, “There is no case where we can trace a substantial shift to the debates.” At best, debates provide a “nudge” in very close elections like 1960,1980, or 2000.

An even more comprehensive study, by political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien, which included every publicly available poll from the presidential elections between 1952 and 2008, comes to a similar conclusion – “the best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict before the debates.” In other words, in the average election year, you can accurately predict where the race will stand after the debates by knowing the state of the race before the debates. Erikson and Wlezien conclude that evidence of debate effects is “fragile” depending on debate substance. So substance is key.

It is therefore clear from what research shows, that whereas presidential debates are part of how the game is played, they are rarely what decide the game itself. The small portion of the debate effect contributed, is still dependent on the superiority of the issues raised by the candidates and how they touch on the expectations of the voters. A debate therefore, that is dominated by trivia and emotion passes without any effect. Indeed after the first Ugandan debate here in Uganda, the New Vision carried headline of scientific and empirical polls that stretched NRM’s flag bearer lead to now 71 percent with other candidates far behind below 20%. This was of course not surprising.

Beyond the inquiry however, in regard to the usefulness and efficacy of debates at presidential level, Ugandans expected to get more concreteness from the debate and not fuzzy, rehearsed and increasingly stale rhetoric that the opposition has mastered over the years. For example, what are the core issues that presidential candidates should have expressed themselves on succinctly? I think the following could have been areas that required deep interrogation during the debate.

1. Public security and sustainable peace:

Security is the umbrella that provides shade for other facets of development to thrive. The NRM has a sterling record of performance that no other party can measure to, let alone challenge. It has stood the test of time and its experience in ensuring peace, security and macro-economic stability is unmatched. Ugandans know NRM is the trusted vehicle through which a harmonious environment that guarantees peace and stability is vested. NRM continues to professionalize and equip both the army and the police to deal with the modern security threats of terrorism.

Beyond our borders, NRM government continues to contribute to peace and development in the region as part of its ideological mission that places on it the Pan-Africanist responsibility. Now NRM is focused on strengthening research and development in order to keep pace with global trends in science, technology and innovation. The Defense Research, Science and Technology Centre (DRSTC) at Lugazi and the Avionics Research Centre at Nakasongola will be developed into centers of excellence for collaborative research with the private sector, universities and other agencies.

NRM looks at security comprehensively with laser focus on human security. What is the specific program of parties and candidates opposed to president Museveni on this front? What is their hybrid plan broadly and specifically to maintain a secure Uganda for now and the future? It was surprising that no candidate during the debate mentioned how he or she intends to guarantee security for Ugandans. It passed as a no-issue. The debate organizers too, could not take this as a serious point of contestation that various contenders ought to have debated more rigorously.

In the USA where these debates are so much fancied, the question of national security for the American people and their borders is a serious game changer. For example, in 2004, while it was clear that the majority Americans in the US were determined to dupe president bush and his Republican Party, they changed last minute after the democratic candidate John Kerry failed to substantively articulate how he would secure Americans in the face of global terror that was raging then after the September 11 tragedy.

Without security there can never be any progress in all the other sectors be it formal or informal. So presidential contestants as waiting commander-in-chiefs, should always be asked rigorously to state without any ambiguity what security policies they will pursue; be it for homeland or external security. President Museveni has demonstrated his ability not only to secure Ugandans and their borders but has acted as a continental pillar in defining and shaping the security architecture that works for the entire region and the continent. This is a fact and nobody can dare challenge it.

Frank Tumwebaze has given his verdict of the presidential debate

Frank Tumwebaze has given his verdict of the presidential debate

2. Fighting corruption and impunity:

There has been so much talk about the need to fight corruption. The common slogan actually is zero tolerance to corruption. This talk is good and its the beginning of a wider conversation about how to fight corruption and impunity. But beyond the talking and using the corruption talk to politic, leaders must discuss clearer strategies to fight misuse of public resources. There are two known approaches to the fight against corruption. That is; investing in preventive and deterrent measures.

The contestation therefore, on how best to fight corrupt should be on those measures that both work to prevent corruption before it happens and bite so hard to punish and deter the culprits. Preventive measures against corruption involve among others; building of strong inspection and monitoring systems in the framework of public service delivery so as to ensure detection of service delivery anomalies and defects in real time.

Real time detection of project or programme anomalies as opposed to end point audits that are more or less postmortem, enables taking of early corrective measures and thus mitigates losses much more efficiently. The detail here therefore should be on how we build a strong inspection and monitoring system at the last point of service delivery- the sub county unit.

The question therefore is; How do we support and empower inspection officers to do this critical role of corruption prevention? The parish chiefs, the Gisos, the Disos, the Rdcs, the school and health inspectors as well as the community elected political leaders if well empowered and trained can all form a strong buffer at the community level to prevent diversion of public resources.

I would want therefore to hear what other presidential candidates propose as viable alternatives to prevent leakage of public funds. On the deterrent side, the focus should be on building capacity for the anti- graft and watchdog agencies with enabling pieces of legislation that guarantee their independence and financing. That is why for example the national audit act of 2008 was enacted to provide for the full independence of the Auditor general’s office, that hitherto was a mere department of audit in the ministry of finance.

Quite often you hear accountability committees of Parliament talking tough and quizzing accounting officers with audit queries and they take all the credit, Yet all their work is fed in by the auditor general’s outputs. The policy decision taken by the NRM government to empower the auditor general’s office with an enabling piece of legislation and the adequate statutory funding provided all demonstrate the commitment to punishing the corrupt.

Besides the talk and artificial use therefore, of the intention to fight corruption for political capital, what different, innovative, practical and concrete plans do those opposed to president Museveni have? What is their plan to stop corruption before it happens and to deter those involved? The debate should have delved into such more deeply.

3. Efficiency in government service delivery:

As we comb the villages in search for votes, the key issue on the lips of every contender is the grand promise to the voters of better service delivery in all the various social and livelihood sectors of government. While others are promising to reduce the tax burden by cutting taxes, others are promising to increase salaries for civil servants.

Nobody demonstrates how all that will be possible. None articulates the question of efficiency both allocative and operational. How do you allocate the merger resources efficiently to stimulate growth and at the same time ensure maximum operational efficiency to avoid wastage.

The NRM believes in Prioritization as a strategy of allocative efficiency. What is the plan of those opposed to president Museveni to retool civil service system so that it better meets the demands presented by a modern, multiagency approach to government.

What are their concrete plans to re-configure civil service systems that improve the ability of the government agencies to recruit and retain our nation’s best and brightest talent. I expected some level of concrete action to evaluate government performance for example through leveraging of now expansive Information technology infrastructure and creation of a balanced scorecard of quantitative and qualitative performance objectives that commit government agencies and local governments to tangible individual and agency outputs and outcomes.

None of the debaters made even an attempt to articulate such. Some of them talked of putting in place a small government. What does a small government mean in relation to running an efficient and effective government? This is an issue to debate further. Ugandans are therefore interested in efficient public service delivery and not raucous sloganeering that seems to have taken over public space in our politics.

Therefore, beyond ritualism and sheer form, presidential debates should be about substance if they are to be any form of yardstick to use in assessing qualitative leadership. Otherwise happy 30th NRM anniversary as we steadily maintain our progress with the “old man with a hat”.

Frank Tumwebaze, MP Minister for the presidency and Kampala and NRM parliamentary candidate for Kibale east county- Kamwenge district

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