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What about election debates leading up to the general elections?

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In our country, the fact that we hold regular general elections is equated with democracy, as if elections by themselves constitute the sole barometer of the democratic health of the society. While there is no doubt that the holding of regular elections in fair and free conditions is essential to the expression of the democratic will of our citizens, ensuring that they are held in an atmosphere which allows for proper scrutiny of parties and candidates contesting such polls is equally vital.{{more}}

Ever since the introduction of the party system in the mid-fifties, deficiencies in mass communication resulted in parties having to hold regular public meetings to inform the general public of their policies and activities. In some cases, notably during the era of the late Ebenezer Theodore Joshua, the weekly political meeting in the Market Square in Kingstown (the Mecca of local politics until its destruction a couple decades ago) became a political institution in itself.

This provided the opportunity for ongoing contact between politicians and people and for more familiarity with the policies of the party and with its leaders. As communication technology evolved, with more access to newspapers, radio and television, this form of regular contact became less and less a priority. Parties today rely more on their daily radio programmes, columns in newspapers and the use of social media to get their message across, occasionally venturing to mass rallies.

These mass rallies and election campaigns themselves have been characterized by the emphasis on the entertainment aspect, with a danger that the policy aspect could be subsumed. In addition, the late issuance of election manifestos often make them ineffective as a means of examining what political parties stand for and propose.

How then, do we provide for more thorough scrutiny of parties and candidates? In some countries, a system of pre-election debates at the leadership level has been introduced. This is far from perfect and as recent developments in the USA and Trinidad and Tobago have shown, not without challenges of their own, but it is certainly worth trying.

As we move closer to elections, it is estimated that perhaps up to 90 per cent of those who will vote have already made up their minds one way or another. The remaining 10 per cent, however, may well be the deciding factor in the elections. Properly-conducted debates could help these personsto make up their minds and also motivate those not inclined to vote to change their minds in that regard.

Thus, we would advocate for the holding of such debates at the leadership level. In our case, we propose to go beyond the maximum leader (the Gonsalves versus Eustace scenario) and extend the debate to say three leading officials from the contesting parties. This would give senior figures of the parties an opportunity to address national issues on a more sober basis outside the traditional party broadcasts and the regular Parliamentary stand-offs. That can only be good for the country, for the politicians themselves and for democracy as a whole.

Of course, there will be a host of logistical and organizational issues to be resolved – who will organize the debates, what form will they take, who can be entrusted with moderation, etc. But these are practical questions which we are more than capable of answering if we would only make our commitment to such an initiative. Can we?

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