“A moderator is not the show or star of the program. The candidates and issues are,” said Bernard Shaw, CNN anchor emeritus and two-time moderator and panelist of U.S. presidential debates.
Shaw was addressing the third International Debate Best Practices Symposium, which was co-hosted by NDI and the U.S.-based Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) from March 31 to April 3 in Washington, D.C. Representatives from media associations, chambers of commerce, good government and human rights groups, women’s advocacy organizations, election authorities and think tanks from 22 countries participated in the symposium, which was possibly the largest global gathering of candidate debate moderators ever held.
Over the last decade, candidate debates have served an increasingly central and expected role across democratic systems and political cultures. In more than 65 nations, voters now tune in to debates to compare candidates running for all levels of office and learn about their positions in an impartial setting. The symposium offered participants a rare chance to discuss the challenges of organizing and producing debates in their respective countries and share practical lessons.
Trevor Fearon, senior advisor of the Jamaica Debate Commission, highlighted how debates help reduce political conflict and tensions during election season. In Jamaica, he said, debates helped to “lower the temperature by getting political leaders talking and shaking hands...and it made a difference.”
Participants also highlighted how debates help voters hold elected officials accountable for their campaign promises after elections, and provide the public with a rare opportunity to compare candidates side by side. Jean Mensa, executive director of the Institute of Economic Affairs in Ghana, said, “If you want to govern, you have to answer questions that are important to the public.”
Symposium participants also discussed the challenges they face in organizing and producing debates. Many flagged the universal challenge of getting candidates to participate in a debate. “The common denominator is the problem of current candidates refusing to compare their ideas to those of their opponents,” wrote Guatemalan debate moderator Felipe Valenzuela in an op-ed after the symposium.
A representative from Serbia discussed the challenge of creating a culture of debate that ensures that candidates, particularly incumbents, agree to take part. Similarly, representatives from Nepal and Kenya noted the challenge of building off an initial successful first debate to institutionalize the practice.
Participants visited the Washington bureau of ABC News. They met with Robin Sproul, vice president of public affairs; Richard Klein, political director; and Martha Raddatz, chief global affairs correspondent and moderator of a U.S. vice presidential debate in 2012. Raddatz recounted that “studying as a moderator is like prepping for a college SAT and taking the test in front of 75 million people.” She emphasized the role of a moderator to work “for voters to help them decide...the most enormous responsibility I ever had.”
In addition, participants highlighted challenges and successes around producing debates and working with media, including deciding which language to use in a multilingual country, maintaining impartiality and choosing the format of the debate.
Symposium participants also exchanged ideas with the board of directors of the CPD, the independent nonprofit that has organized and produced all U.S. general election presidential and vice presidential debates since 1987.
Newton Minow, a founding CPD board member who has been involved in U.S. debates since the first historic televised Kennedy/Nixon presidential match-ups in 1960, asked the participants for recommendations for the 2016 U.S. debates. Francis Munywoki, a debate sponsor from the Standard Media Group in Kenya, suggested collecting questions from abroad given the impact that U.S. elections can have on other nations. Fernando Straface, of the Argentine think tank Center for the Implementation of Public Policies Promoting Equity and Growth (CIPPEC), suggested that the candidates send a joint message of national unity from the stage during the debate.
At the conclusion of the symposium, the participants gathered by region and developed plans for future collaboration. Delegates from the Caribbean agreed to continue providing mutual support to fellow debate groups that subsequently worked to organize debates in Trinidad and Tobago and Haiti. The representatives from Africa will continue to consolidate a continent-wide network focused on “solidarity visits to sister countries holding debates.” Participants from Malawi and Guatemala penned opinion pieces in local newspapers that reflected on their experiences from the symposium.
The symposium participants also praised the efforts of delegates from Argentina who are leaders of Argentina Debate, a coalition of NGOs, business sector, labor unions and religious leaders, that has since staged the country’s first presidential debate on October 4 and subsequent debate on November 15 in advance of the country’s November 22 run-off election.
Many of the organizers are dedicated to making debates a permanent part of the political culture of their countries. “Debates are fragile and can be taken away,” remarked Colombian Jorge Baladi, a representative of the Bolívar Political Debates Commission, in the closing session of the symposium. “We need to keep fighting every election.”
This year’s delegation of participants included representatives from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Guatemala, Guyana, Jamaica, Kenya, Lebanon, Malawi, México, Nepal, Nigeria, Paraguay, Perú, Serbia, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, and Zambia. The majority of the groups are members of Debates International, a global association of debate sponsoring groups. Debate resources were also shared throughout the symposium, including the Debates International web-based resource center and NDI’s “Organizing and Producing Candidate Debates: An International Guide.”
The symposium was made possible with support from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. NDI and CPD have collectively helped sponsors organize more than 300 debates at all levels of office in 35 countries.
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Published on November 16, 2015