Live presidential debates are recorded as an intoxicating mix of highly staged political theatre and unscripted moments of potentially career-ending hilarity. Incredibly, as entertaining as live debates are, the first face-to-face presidential debate didn’t happen until Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy’s famous televised debates in 1960.
Before that, the only truly memorable debate between rivals for elective office can be traced to 1857 when Abraham Lincoln insisted on having a debate with Stephen Douglas. It was an unmoderated debate, and what was then at stake was a senatorial seat in the State of Illinois. Abraham Lincoln lost that election but a history in political debating had already been made.
Lincoln would later win the presidency in 1860, in an election which featured no political debates. In fact, there were no debates between presidential candidates until 1952 when the League of Women Voters organised debates between presidential candidates.
About 157 years after the first political debate for elective office and 54 years after the first live debate of presidential candidates, Malawi claimed its seat on the global stage of civilised electioneering.
Courtesy of private broadcaster Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS), Malawi held the first ever debate of presidential running mates, conveying a bold message to the world that through courage and innovation we can be like the rest of the advanced world.
The coincidence of having this kind of event for the first time in a year when Malawi is commemorating 50 years of independence can never be more remarkable. It sets the tone for atoning for the wasted 50 years as the country stands on the threshold of embarking on the next Golden Jubilee.
Joab Frank Chakhaza, the moderator of the night, deserves his praises. He did well under the circumstances. He is not Jim Lehrer of PBS who has moderated more presidential debates than anyone else in modern history, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates.
As he considers filling in the spaces of improvement, he will do well to consider, on another night, getting all the speakers to stay the course of the ground rules, just as he must always remember to remain the course of the themes of the day.
It naturally should leave a bad taste in the mouth of a speaker to be ambushed with questions on homosexuality when the agreed themes, for which they had to prepare, are health, agriculture and poverty reduction.
While time will always be of essence, the objective of the debate runs the threat of being undermined when the participants are expected, for instance, to outline their respective measures of fighting poverty in 30 seconds. That is a time footballer Ronaldinho spends just to mention his full name.
Sosten Gwengwe—People’s Party (PP)
He was not careless on substantive matters of the night. In fact, he is a real smoothie in that regard. He can answer questions, present his arguments and make it look like child’s play, even in a hostile environment. To say he is a storeroom of detail moving on human legs would not be speculative.
There is simply nowhere in that debate where the 37-year old didn’t have grasp of the issue being debated. He knows his stuff. Only that once in a while he lost grip of himself to emotions, like many people in a similar situation would, and misdirected his focus.
Arguably, the PP has lately not been at the end of some of the best public sentiments. Gwengwe, therefore, appeared to be approaching the night like someone who was debating from behind in the polls. The principle being that when trailing in the polls, it’s imperative to put your opponents on the defensive. He, evidently, was debating “not to lose,” but that’s only an effective strategy for a front-runner. He put it in doubt, though, if he has to be taken as one.
A front runner doesn’t always fall prey to any gotcha moment. They don’t keep smiling awkwardly and contemptuously while an opponent is speaking or in reaction to a remark that doesn’t coincide with them.
Intelligent as Gwengwe is, he will surely have to mind his actions during the next debate. He is the kind of person who should have the ability to know that at any speaking event all eyes are on you. You are not only being judged on what you say but also on your demeanour.
Gwengwe may consider being mindful of his composure on another night. This includes paying attention to his non-verbal reactions to his opponent’s statements, An eye roll, pursed lips, and finger wagging, as he did on the previous night, could come across to some people as rude or antagonistic. He is able to know that even when you are not speaking, you are still being watched.
Saulos Chilima—Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)
He came across as someone who kept telling himself that in a highly stressful, heated setting, it is easy to get caught up in the emotion of the moment. But raising your voice or getting upset will not benefit your cause. Instead, keep collected even if your opponent or audience is trying to draw you into a shouting match. You will earn more respect for being calm and able to express your thoughts in a composed manner.
Detachment is a quality that Chilima projected quite successfully. He didn’t take it personally when his line that Cabinet ministers are controlling officers in some ministries was challenged with contempt. His presence worked for him too. He never allowed to be rattled by an opponent.
He came across as presidential. In some of these positions the importance of poise can never be underrated. By the way, that includes when your opponent is speaking. Remaining in control of verbal and nonverbal communication at all times can be a big strength. He exuded this quality well.
His weaknesses of the night included overstretching his detachment strategy by trying to be too polished. People know that Chilima talks. And he can do it well. He has done it so many times. Most certainly many people came to see this. Those that have never seen him perform before, came to confirm what they had heard.
Probably that is the reason it was always when his turn came to speak that the whole auditorium went completely quiet. If his supporters, admirers and suitors never felt betrayed with his overly-cautious approach, it would be a sordid lie. His restraint, for instance, even to let stray remarks of his opponents go unchallenged was almost fake.
It made him look like he was not debating his opponents, but addressing a board meeting of willing and already-taken listeners.
Richard Msowoya—Malawi Congress Party (MCP)
His game was consistently solid. He had excellent front lines. His first lines of answers and opinions on every subject were outstanding.
He seemed to have rehearsed the script to his supporters and made sure they were part of the audience in their large numbers. Because they thunderously cheered their approvals, even when he merely sneezed. But largely they did not cheer for nothing. The 52-year-old, like a tested local political fox, mastered his sound bites and clips. These debates have the tendency to be nothing but a series of sound bites.
But whether his electrifying show had substance to behold and take seriously is another matter. There have been master sensualists before him, their speeches held everyone by the collar and dragged them all the way, but nothing of their tales materialised, not even anywhere in the neighbourhood of fruition.
As you will remember when pressed beyond his original answers on many topics, he simply couldn’t defend himself effectively. He didn’t even know the country’s legislative position in respect of homosexuality.
Godfrey Chapola—United Democratic Front (UDF)
Chapola largely appeared dispassionate in the debate. This lack of passion distanced him from the audience. His slow, stuttering approach was thoroughly awkward. The many pauses in his speech made one feel back in time, sitting around a fire listening to his tired grandfather slowly spin his yarns while he slowly turns a sweet potato he was roasting.
While chasm-sized pauses might assist in conveying a thoughtful approach, they often give the opposite signal … that he doesn’t know what he wants to say next. This is the perception Chapola pulled off for himself on this crucial night.
At times his extended answers sounded like lectures. And nobody likes to be lectured to, especially in a long-winded fashion and on a weekend night, when people want to be quickly done with and, boom, off they go to continue with their relaxation routines.