This entry may perhaps come across as untimely, especially when campus elections across the country has already ended. But the idea has been haunting the hollow shell of my head since my undergraduate years in UPM – and is yearning for a release. As I am now working with a debate promoter (H & G), the desire to discuss and debate this idea has grown significantly more – Should we introduce debating in campus campaigns or elections?
Politicians have always looked to the US, where debates started, on radio, in the Oregon Republican presidential primary in May 1948 when Thomas Dewey, the eventual nominee, and Harold Stassen discussed the single topic of outlawing the Communist Party. The first televised debates between presidential candidates were the famous Kennedy-Nixon matches in 1960. However, they became regular only from 1976, varying in number, but usually three, with one between vice-presidential candidates. These follow a large number of debates within each party in the previous year.
In Britain, TV debates have become the norm in comparable parliamentary systems. They have been held in Australia since 1984; in Canada regularly since 1979 after a one-off in 1968; and now in most European countries (in Sweden and Norway even before the US).
Within Britain, party leaders in Scotland have held a series of debates during the campaigns for the Scottish Parliament, as did the candidates for London Mayor in 2008. During general election campaigns, leading spokesmen often appear on television programmes together.
What is hard to derive is the influential impact of debates to one’s voting behavior. Kennedy got a crucial edge in a very close election in 1960 after being seen as winning his first debate against Richard Nixon, who was clumsy and flustered, although radio listeners thought the latter did better.
The apprehension with debates is that there is always the prospect for slip-ups. That is why many democratic institutions have yet to adopt public debates within their framework of elections or campaigns. In Britain for instance, many of the elites have been reluctant to face the risk — and uncertainty — of a debate only until recent. But, whatever their impact on the result and integrity of the politician, public debates will dominate the lives of the party leaders and be the most talked about events of any politically driven campaign.
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