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Elections

Martin Oloo: Kenyan debate lacked passion

Ahead of March 4 polls, Kenya's eight presidential candidates held the country's first ever face-to-face televised debate. Campaigning takes place amid memories of the 2007-08 post-election violence.

DW: Who do you think won Monday's debate?

Martin Oloo: There were two sets of people in this debate. There were those people who came to defend their positions and particularly to appeal to their supporters to stand with them, and there were people who did not have anything to lose and they came to attack and throw as much at their opponents as they could. Mohammed Abduba Dida and the advocate Paul Muite would appear to belong to that category. They were on the attack and they were forceful and they had issues to raise. Both Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga had their lead to maintain and they made no mistakes. Overall both of them won, but I would say Odinga looks the better candidate.

Did any of the candidates surprise you positively or negatively?

Yes, Peter Kenneth surprised me because he seems to have prepared very well for this debate. But his eye-contact and his manner of speaking were a little below or off my expectation. I left a little disappointed because I thought he would be making the most of the issues and would have projected himself as the real non-tribalized one who has not been around and has not muddied in many things, but he missed the opportunity.

Is the outcome of the debate likely to influence the voters at all, or have they made up their minds already?

I believe that voters who are supporting each of these candidates have made up their minds. The blocs they have are already within their reach anyway. What surprised me was that I expected them to make a pitch for new voters. For example, Raila should have appealed to those people who are still wondering whether to vote for him. He didn't do that, neither did Uhuru look for any new supporters. He basically played to his old supporters protecting his base, coming out in defense of his ICC and other processes. Again a missed opportunity to appeal to the undecided. Did any particular candidate lose support? I think none of the front-line people lost any support, but certainly there were those from whom we expected a lot, from Musalia Mudavadi and then you had James Kiyapi and Martha Karua. They missed the opportunity and may have disappointed some of their supporters.

If the voters had already made up their minds, why was the debate held in the first place?

The debate was firstly to bring these people out and to let them debate together. It was a chance for people to compare them, and there was a chance for a shift in support for candidates, because had I thought my candidate was doing worse than another candidate, then I would have made up mind about going for the other candidate. Unfortunately they were not passionate, the passion wasn't there, the appeal wasn't there, the persuasion wasn't there, so, yes, there was need for the debate, but a debate with some inspiration, but that was lacking. Secondly when you look at the polls there are a significant number of people who have not yet decided how they will vote, between 15 and 20 percent, and this a significant number that needed to be shifted by this very debate.

What do you make of Raila Odinga's attack on Uhuru Kenyatta that he can't operate a government via Skype from The Hague. What do you make of that comment?

It is a nice sound bite. Basically what he was telling Uhuru is that, yes, you might be right in telling Kenyans it is up to them to decide, but I want to tell you that if they make that decision, it will be impossible for you to operate and if you want to rely on Skype to rule this country, that will be a difficult thing to do. So basically what he was telling his opponent is, wait, you may be arguing that you are digital, and maybe I am analogue, but I still think that the best way for me to stay on is to be available to the people and meet them face-to-face. I would also say that when Paul Muite said he wanted to open up the investigations around the post-election violence, Raila Odinga was quick to say "look, that was an irresponsible statement:" Irresponsible indeed, I think it was reckless in the sense here is a topic that you do not want to play around with.     

Martin Oloo is a political scientist based in Nairobi.

Interviewer: Isaac Mugabi