Presidential debates have become a seminal part of multiparty
liberal democratic societies everywhere.
The US Presidential debates serve as a benchmark for the entire
democratic world as it has become a globally televised election
About 63 million people watched the final 2020 US Presidential
And even that was considered low in terms of the numbers.
The millions of viewers also make Presidential debates a big
business for advertisers and brands – at least in America.
Political historians generally agree that televised debates
have a profound effect upon the result of elections in the US
and other places where people vote based on the issues.
The importance of debates has therefore grown immensely in
most open societies around the world.
For many, Presidential debates are what they rely upon to
decide on which candidate will receive their vote.
This is why it is very crucial that voters are given the
opportunity to hear candidates discuss and debate key issues
prior to elections.
Presidential debates allow candidates to sell themselves and their
ideas. It also allows candidates to discredit their opponents face-to-
face before the audience.
For the watching audience, debates allow them to assess the
demeanor and temperament of each candidate in terms of how they
react to provocation.
The audience can also assess how strongly candidates project and
defend their policy, principled and moral positions.
The voting public is interested in how fast a candidate is able to
think on their feet and respond to rebuttals from the opponent.
Voters are attracted to a more confident candidate with solid ideas
they can strongly defend.
Debates are even more important when elections are close with
many voters’ undecided until the last minute.
With two Presidents – one former and the other incumbent –
running for office in Ghana, a Presidential debate between the two
men would have given Ghanaian voters a better opportunity to hear
the two candidates discuss and debate the key issues surrounding
corruption in public office, education policies, infrastructure
development, the economy, security and many more.
Culture of Presidential Debates In Ghana
In Ghana, unlike the US and elsewhere, there is no Presidential
This means that formal televised debates have not really been
institutionalized and remains in the hands of civil society in
collaboration with the media. Presidential debates require a free
At the onset of the 4 th republic in Ghana, press freedoms were
A criminal libel law even existed to jail journalists for libel. And
governments controlled state media and opposition voices were
Ghana first embraced Presidential debates before the year 2000
elections with the participation of six (6) opposition Presidential
candidates in an event organized by Institute of Economic Affairs
Professor Evans Atta Mills of the ruling NDC did not participate.
In 2004, the IEA-Ghana again organized a Presidential debate. All
candidates participated except incumbent President John Kufuor
who failed to show up.
Contest Of Ideas in 2008
In 2008, things changed with the participation of all candidates
with representation in Ghana’s parliament including the ruling
NPP party candidate Nana Akufo Addo.
There were two Presidential debates among the four candidates in
all. One took place in Accra and the other in Tamale prior to the
It was dubbed ‘’the contest of ideas’’ from both sides of the
Observers hailed it as a practice that served to consolidate and
deepen Ghana’s democracy.
However, no research has clearly shown that these debates
influenced the final outcome of the various elections.
Indeed, both the NDC and the NPP are convinced of their solid
equal support base among the electorate.
This solid partisan support base for the two big parties is based on
regional and tribal boundaries that seem incapable of changing
through the contest of ideas generated through debates.
And there are other factors, other than rhetoric, that also influence
the so-called ‘’floating’’ or undecided voters in their final voting
This may have informed the reluctance of both President John
Mahama and President Nana Akufo Addo to engage in televised
Presidential debates while they are in power.
The trend from the year 2000 has established clearly that, the
opposition candidates always seem more interested in challenging
the incumbent to debates whiles the incumbents always find an
excuse to avoid debates with the exception of 2008.
In 2000, Atta Mills of the incumbent party avoided debate.
In 2004, incumbent President J.A Kufuor also stayed away from
debate once he was in power.
In 2016, opposition candidate Nana Akufo Addo was eager to
debate a sitting President John Mahama but his challenge went
President John Mahama found excuses in accusing the IEA-Ghana,
the organizers, of impartiality.
Now in opposition, former President John Mahama, running for re-
election is eager to debate the incumbent President Nana Akufo
But again, the tables have turned. Incumbent President Akufo
Addo who was eager for a televised debate in 2016 has now
changed his mind, unwilling to engage in the contest of ideas.
It seems like a circus.
Each incumbent Presidential candidate prefers to engage in
monologues on television and radio targeted at their core
Propaganda and Disinformation Wins
Thankfully, social media is very active in Ghana and each
candidate has deployed a cyber army to engage in mental combat
against political opponents with weapons of mass deception.
It will seem that it is easier to engage in a televised Presidential
debate in Ghana when you are an opposition candidate without the
responsibility to account to the people.
But it is also much easier for the incumbent President to use the
mass media and engage a rented press to propagate his
achievements and promises in Green Books or power point
presentations– fulfilled or failed – to the electorate rather than
engage face-to-face with the opponent in a televised contest of
ideas to give an informed electorate the opportunity to decide on
the facts-checked and counter checked.
After all, propaganda and disinformation can create an alternative
reality in a post-truth society.
Since the two main political parties in Ghana – NDC and NPP –
know that besides deepening the democratic culture, there is no
credible research findings out there to show that Presidential
debates is a significant factor in determining the winner of a
Presidential election in Ghana, their focus is mainly on winning the
elections through other methods of campaign.
For now, they will continue to leave debates to their teaming
supporters and foot soldiers in the public sphere including social
media, radio and television where propaganda and disinformation
This way, it is easier for Presidential candidates to deny and
distance themselves from politically incorrect statements made by
their surrogates while they focus on winning so-called ‘’floating
voters’’ with rallies etc.
The two main Presidential candidates avoided social and political
accountability when they chose to avoid televised debates.
President Nana Akufo Addo and President John Mahama have
both served four years in the past as Presidents of Ghana.
A publicly televised debate between the two would have therefore,
given the media and the general public a good opportunity to ask
them questions about their previous regimes, their failed promises,
and their past record to justify why voters should give them a new
It would have been a true contest of ideas.
If Ghana wants to ensure that televised Presidential debates
become a permanent part of every election cycle and to move
forward in consolidating its democracy, the country would have to
follow the example of the US and others by setting up the
commission on Presidential debates (CPD) to sponsor and produce
debates and also engage in research to deepen such debates
Such a debate commission will be capable of institutionalizing and
entrenching the culture of debates in election cycles without
leaving it to the whims and caprices of the candidates themselves
and the civil society groups.
By: Sacut Amenga-Etego