A Reflection on the Recent Presidential Debate Ahead of the Forthcoming Elections

With just one week remaining until the presidential elections, uncertainty clouded the scheduling of Saturday night’s debate up until 24 hours before its airing. Ultimately, it was jointly produced by private broadcaster Sangu TV in collaboration with the national broadcaster, Public Service Media (PSM).

Given a record-breaking field of eight candidates in this year’s race, the necessity for a unified platform where the public could evaluate the candidates and scrutinise their contrasting policies became evident during the debate.

The Undeniable Importance of Debates in Democracy

What became patently clear by the conclusion of the debate is that, for candidates who had initially harboured reservations about participating, these confrontational platforms are a crucial component of the democratic process—especially in the pursuit of public office.

Social media critiques abounded during and after the event, scrutinising not just the candidates but also their policies. One point of universal agreement emerged: the importance of the debate itself and the need for a neutral entity to facilitate it.

Stimulating Public Interest and Civic Engagement

The debate undeniably piqued public interest and fostered civic participation. This is particularly significant in the context of this year’s election, where the latest polls conducted by the Think Tank Baani indicate that 53% of voters still remain undecided.

Clarifying Candidate Platforms

The event provided candidates an opportunity to expound upon their respective manifestos. This clarified not only what policies they were advocating for but also whether they were adequately prepared to implement their proposed agendas if elected.

Informing the Undecided Electorate and Building Public Trust

For a large segment of undecided voters, the debate created a unique space for immediate and direct comparison of candidates, especially as many contenders attracted voters with compelling “pull factors” and proposals for “harmonisation”.

Candidates could not evade challenging topics, and they were obligated to address questions candidly before a critical public audience, reinforcing the forum as a mechanism for accountability.

Editorial Independence: A Concern and a Requirement

The event’s organisation initially generated some hesitation concerning the editorial independence of the hosting platforms. Public broadcasters, traditionally tasked with hosting such events globally, are funded by taxpayers and are thus mandated to remain impartial. However, the editorial independence of such institutions can be compromised, a challenge often confronted by the Maldives’ own public broadcaster.

Notes for the Future

What is unequivocally affirmed is that televised debates are an integral element of the electoral process. While the efficacy of these debates hinges on the integrity of the host, public broadcasters are generally well-suited for the role. However, should their editorial independence be compromised, various corrective measures—from public scrutiny to legislative interventions—must be implemented to ensure both the debate and the broadcasters retain their integrity.