A debate will die on the altar of theatrics


Tuesday, March 26, 2019

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The battle is on for the parliamentary seat in Portland Eastern. Both parties are pulling out their tactics and strategies to win the seat. In the People's National Party's (PNP) arsenal we have the charismatic Damion Crawford, who is quite the speaker and equally as captivating and persuasive. And, on the side of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) we have the lady of action, Ann-Marie Vaz.

In this battle there is a call for a debate between the candidates. This leads to the overarching question which political scientists have been grappling with for many years: How much do the debates even matter?

According to columnist Andrew Prokop, in his article 'Do presidential debates matter?', debates have the potential to make a small but real impact on the race. He went further to argue that in a close race, with a very polarised electorate, a shift of just a few percentage points could matter a great deal. Is this the case for Jamaica?

What sways voters? Is it what the electorate perceive they can get from the campaign process and, by extension, the Member of Parliament? Is it familial culture? Is it manifesto promises?

When we understand what causes an electorate to choose a candidate then we will see that points from political platforms are just for entertainment. The candidate at the microphone is just a 'hype man', he is there to “build a vibes”.

I'm sure in the last election, and the one before, the previous Member of Parliament for Portland Eastern campaigned on a platform of development/infrastructure for the constituency. Were those promises delivered?

We have to assess the underlying cause for voters to support a party and a Member of Parliament who does not deliver on campaign promises election after election. The previous Member of Parliament was there while his party was in power, yet development of the constituency is dire. The Member of Parliament before him was a member of the ruling party at the time, yet the constituency remains lacking. I say all of that to argue the point that elections are not won on plans delivered by candidates on the political platform, or printed in a manifesto. Is this ideal? Clearly not, we have to start shifting the political/voting culture of this country, lest we will be in a continuous cycle of poor representation. This shift will have to start with our children. This is the role of civics which I think should be introduced from as early as the primary years.

The calls for a debate have been growing, there have been several letters to the editor as well as the leader of the Opposition. Dr Phillips, while addressing a gathering of residents in Portland Easten, said the constituents have been asking for and deserve to see the candidates vying to represent them stand together and present their plans so the electors have a fair chance of making the right selection. I agree with the leader of the Opposition; however, I disagree about the format.

Moreover, we must admit that the subtext of the call for a debate is that one candidate has shown himself to be more gifted than the other oratorically. Making a debate one more opportunity for the theatrics and point-scoring is not the genuine engagement it should be. I would prefer a town hall meeting at which the residents of Portland Eastern can interrogate the candidates on their plans for the constituency.

Elections are not won by the fancy words and argumentative styles displayed in a debate. Elections in Jamaica are won based on the organisation of the candidate who can mobilise the voters and convince them that they can deliver during and after the campaign.

Lorenzo Smith is an educator with interests in social justice. Send comments to the Observer or to lorenzsmitt@gmail.com.

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