What it Took to Hold Malawi’s First-Ever Presidential Debate

12 candidates, two languages, and a taskforce comprised of media organizations, election observers and human rights groups. And that was just the beginning.


Malawi First Presidential Debate

Presidential candidates join hands at the first presidential debate held in Malawi / Debates International

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Case Study:
 First-Time Presidential Debate
Country: Malawi
Debate: April 22, 2014 (two more debates held April 29 and May 6)

A few hours before he was scheduled to moderate Malawi’s first-ever presidential debate on April 22, 2014, the Rev. Patrick Semphere received news that four of the 12 candidates, including two of the front-runners, had pulled out.

Though nervous, he stuck to his prepared questions on education and healthcare, after first asking candidates a pointed question about what they would do to turn the country around. 

Later that night, after the candidates held hands on stage as a show of national unity, Semphere, a former chairperson of the Media Council of Malawi, exited the Bingu International Conference Centre in the capital of Lilongwe, overwhelmed with relief.  

“It was like I had finished a major exam,” he said. “The heightened pressure of moderating the first-of-its-kind event, which was not pre-recorded but live, meaning mistakes become cast in stone, was unimaginable.”

Semphere need not have worried. Though the election on May 20 was marred by complaints about ballot counts and a delay in announcing the results, political and media analysts consider the debates—three total for the presidential candidates, held in two different cities—a success, and an appropriate milestone to mark the 50th anniversary of Malawi’s independence.  

Eleven candidates attended the next two debates (the final one is available on YouTube). “It’s rare to get so many candidates to attend the first-time effort,” said Matt Dippell, National Democratic Institute (NDI) global debate program advisor and deputy director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “That was a huge achievement.”

Only the incumbent president, Joy Banda, boycotted the entire series, stating she was too busy “reaching out to the people” to attend. She ended up losing the election to Peter Mutharika—the younger brother of former President Bingu wa Mutharika, who died in office in 2012.

Though the crowded field posed logistical challenges, including debates lasting three hours even though candidates were limited to two-minute responses, it also provided the opportunity to hear from lesser-known candidates who lacked the popularity and media access to make their views known. More broadly, said Dippell, the debates sent a positive message throughout the country that candidates who disagree on policy could engage in civil discourse.

Patrick Semphere TedX Talk

Patrick Semphere during his TEDx Talk on moderating Malawi’s presidential debates (screenshot).

The debate questions alternated between English, the official language, and Chichewa, which is more commonly spoken, to show that candidates could communicate in both. Two television stations, including the state-run Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, and five radio stations broadcast the debates, with organizers aiming “as big a voter education impact as possible,” said Dippell.

The candidates were persuaded to take part by the Taskforce on Malawi Presidential Debates, a coalition of media organizations, election observers, and civic, religious, and human rights groups. With funding from the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa and UKAID, and technical assistance from NDI, the Taskforce spent six months working out everything from location and security to the questions the moderator would pose.

By the third debate, Semphere had more confidence in his role, and the candidates were more comfortable, too, even joking with each other on stage. During a TEDx Lilongwe Talk about the debates, Semphere recalled one of the final questions: “In the event you win the election, how are you going to use the collective wisdom that we’ve seen so marvelously during the three debates?”

Five months after the election, Mutharika met with some, but not all, of the other candidates.

Social Media’s Indirect Role

Taskforce Chairman Anthony Kasunda said one of the conditions for securing the candidates’ participation was to prohibit direct questioning from audience members, because “some presidential candidates felt they may be embarrassed with some of the issues that can randomly come from the public.”

“We were mindful of the fact that there cannot be debates if the candidates will decline to participate,” said Kasunda, who is now the public relations manager for Blantyre City Council (the country’s second largest city). He added, however, that some of the moderator’s questions were inspired by issues raised in various forums, including on social media.

“In Malawi, Facebook has become one of the major forums where the public debate on issues affecting them is done,” said Kasunda. “One cannot ignore the social platform at the moment. So the team organizing questions took serious notice of the issues raised on the social front.”

The number of Malawians using social media is small. In a country with around 17 million people, less than 7 percent have internet access. But many Malawians living in the United States and in other countries turn to Facebook and Twitter to discuss African politics.

Sitinga Kachipande, president of the Malawi Washington Association, said Zodiak Broadcasting Station, which broadcast the presidential debates and organized the running mates debate, making it available via multiple platforms, missed an opportunity to promote a single hashtag rounding up conversations on Twitter. Yet despite the lack of a centralized dialogue, social media proved essential to connecting Malawians to one another, and to the debates.

Kachipande, a Ph.D. student in sociology at Virginia Tech studying Africa and the global political economy, said she and others were pleased that specific issues of concern to Malawians living outside the country—such as the topic of dual citizenship—came up during the debates.

Eddie Naming’ona, who works for an affordable housing association in D.C. and lives in suburban Maryland, agreed. “I could see things that were being discussed on Facebook by Malawians both in the diaspora and those at home were addressed fully during the debates,” said Naming’ona, who listened to the radio broadcast on TuneIn, as did his mother, who was visiting from Malawi at the time.

When he called family in Malawi, the situation was much the same: several households were gathered together, listening to the debate on the radio. For debate discussions, he turned mostly to Facebook and online forums.

Semphere said debate organizers prioritized mastering the basics of the debate over addressing issues raised by the public, but as the debates progressed, “it was clear that social media could not be ignored, although we did not have a live feed onto the moderator’s console.”

He suggested that future debate organizers might do more to gather public input via social media—a recommendation Kasunda also included in his post-election report—but Semphere cautioned taking questions live.

“For me, personally, one would have to tread on this route, carefully considering its vulnerability to abuse. Besides the glamour of instant interactivity, I would wonder what further value would be obtained,” said Semphere.

Aubrey Chikungwa, national director of the Malawi chapter of the National Media Institute of Southern Africa, said he could envision presidential debates designed more like the parliamentary debates held around the country. In those debates, candidates vying for parliamentary seats took questions directly from the audience, and the format was more lively and engaging.

“The debates empowered the electorate to assess the candidates and elect those deemed competent and suitable for the ‘job,’” said Chikungwa. “They provided a platform for citizens to ‘interview’ candidates and pick those competent enough to develop the constituencies.”

Limited Access to Communication Technologies

There’s no data on the number of households that listened to or viewed at least one of the presidential debates, but a NDI post-election report based on interviews with 582 people found that the debates “played a role in shaping participants’ views on candidates among those who listened.”

According to the report, “The debate format allowed them to judge how well candidates could respond to questions—something not discernible at rallies—and made it easy for them to make a side-by-side comparison of policies. This helped them weigh, participants say, which candidate to support.”

Participants also told interviewers that the political discourse during the 2014 election was “more substantive” than in previous elections, with “more discussion of issues important to ordinary citizens and fewer personal attacks.”

Malawi presidential candidates at third and final debate

Presidential candidates take part in the third and final debate at Hotel Victoria in Blantyre, Malawi’s second largest city / Malawi Election Information Center

Those who said they did not listen to the presidential debates identified the primary barrier as “the lack of a radio or radio batteries.” Radio is Malawi’s main conduit for connecting news, politicians and citizens across the country, which is the case even in more affluent countries in the region.

The next presidential election isn’t until 2019, but some observers question whether internet or mobile access will increase significantly by then. More than 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas, where even electricity is scarce.

Cell phones may be easier to adapt for interactivity—in 2014, prospective voters could, for the first time, verify their voter registration status by sending a free text message or by going online—but mobile penetration is still below 40 percent. Still, it looks more promising to some observers.

“The reality for Malawi is that access to social media is still limited, hence unrepresentative of the majority of the population,” said Semphere. “However, SMS messaging has broader coverage, and this could yield a more inclusive participation.”

A country like Myanmar, which saw a 300-percent increase in smartphone penetration in the last year, is “leapfrogging directly to computers in their pockets,” said Chris Doten, senior manager for technology and innovation at NDI. That’s not going to happen in Malawi, but NDI looks at different approaches for different audiences.

“You can’t replace local community radio in local dialects for reaching everyone, but at the same time, connected and often disaffected urban youth are a very important political audience, and they are disproportionately online and on their phones and more versed in these sorts of communication technologies,” said Doten, who oversees a five-member tech team that has built a new Democracy Toolkit for NDI partners and civic groups around the world.

He also cited examples of creative, citizen-fueled projects existing outside of typical government avenues, such as The Munathara Initiative, which engages Arab youth through online debate competitions. (NDI has honored Munathara for civic innovation but does not provide funding.) The competitions begin with short video submissions on hot-button topics. In the final round, the winners on each side are paired with a subject matter expert, often a senior government official or political candidate, and the two teams take part in a live, televised debate.

“I think there are a lot of interesting opportunities for doing things that engage candidates with the populace in different ways that achieve the same goals of debates, but in slightly different formats,” he said.

Boniface Dulani, a senior lecturer in the Department of Political and Administrative Studies at University of Malawi-Chancellor College, said that while social media is becoming more prevalent, especially among youth, it would still be a while before many people could actively engage with presidential debates, assuming there are opportunities to do so. Uploading video questions to be broadcast during a debate, for example, or even livestreaming the event, would be difficult because internet speeds are so slow.

He encouraged something more basic: Debate organizers could tour the country and ask about key issues in person, and then take questions from the public back to the candidates.  

Steve Sharra, an expert on education and technology access in Malawi who recently returned to the country following a stint as a visiting scholar at University of Botswana, suggested something similar, noting that perhaps Zodiak Broadcasting Station could go into villages, record people’s questions, and make them part of the debate. The debates could also be broadcast at a local school—or shown at a later date, during the daytime when it might be easier to travel—with a speaker on hand to guide discussion. 

But Sharra sees another obstacle to increasing engagement: language.

To increase civic participation, citizens need access to information. Yet only a small percentage of people in Malawi—perhaps 10 percent, he estimates—read English, the language used by the government and the country’s print news media. His suggestion: start translating more information into local languages (mostly Chichewa).

“The language situation is very disappointing, and I don’t see how democracy can thrive if we continue placing dependency on English. We need to continue using English, but we need to improve how to promote our local language,” said Sharra. “If we had a newspaper that published every day with intellectual content in local languages, that would go a long way toward increasing democratic participation.” 

In a country where presidential debates are just taking hold, the most innovative tool for increasing engagement may be a combination of many.

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