Daniel Scioli and Cristina de Kirchner. Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.
In contemporary polyarchies, deliberation is a fundamental dimension of democratic process. In this regard, election debates between candidates on television fulfill a dual function. On the one hand, they provide light and direct information to the average citizen. On the other hand, they strengthen the ideological pluralism that all democratic systems should encourage.
But in Latin America, presidential debates are a practice which is still unevenly deployed, a fact attributable to the unfinished evolutionary state of its democratic systems.
In Argentina, the attempt to hold the country’s first presidential debate ever in 1989 failed. The presidential candidate for the Partido Justicialista (Justicialist Party - PJ) and at the time governor of La Rioja province, Carlos Saúl Menem, missed the meeting which had been planned to take place in Bernardo Neustadt’s TV programme Tiempo Nuevo (New Time), and left an empty chair next to the candidate for the Unión Cívica Radical (Radical Civic Union – UCR,) Eduardo Angeloz.
26 years later, Menem’s fellow peronista Daniel Scioli, candidate for the Frente para la Victoria (Front For Victory - FPV) in the 2015 presidential elections, repeats the feat: he has refused to participate in a debate with the other candidates, three weeks before the first round of the elections, due to take place on October 25. Like Menem, Scioli is in the lead according to the opinion polls, but it could happen that, for the very first time, the final decision on who is going to be the next president of Argentina will be settled in the second ballot. The uncertain outcome of the debate on TV with the other presidential contenders may explain Scioli’s reluctance to attend it.
Another empty chair case happened during the 2009 presidential elections in Chile, when a debate organized by the employers’ union Encuentro Nacional de Empresarios (ENEDE) was attended by only two candidates, Sebastián Piñera y Marco Enríquez-Ominami. A similar case took place in Nicaragua in 2006, when Daniel Ortega announced he would not participate in a debate convened by CNN and the Nicaragua’s Channel 2.
Even though debates between presidential candidates have positive consequences for the strengthening of democracy, doubts as to how far these debates influence voters’ decisions and fears about the risk of making mistakes they entail explain the widespread reluctance of the candidates to attend them.
It all started in the 60s in the United States. The first, historic television debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon marked a before and an after in election campaigns, for it made clear that the debate had had some influence on the image of the politicians and on how they were perceived by citizens.
Television acquired sudden political power as its role as an important source of information and a useful communication tool both for candidates and campaign strategists became apparent. By 1960, approximately 90% of American households had TV and an estimated 70 million watched the first debate. Although Kennedy won the election by a very narrow margin (some 100,000 votes), analysts argued that the visual impact the Democratic candidate had on the first of the three debates was instrumental in his victory.
Studies on election campaigns tend to consider television as being at the center of modern politics. While radio was historically the undisputed medium for public information, the emergence of television helped politicians in generating a sense of immediacy with the voter that had not previously been achieved through other media. On the other hand, the capacity to report visually and immediately has become the primary source of citizen information in the last 30 years, relegating radio and the written press to the sidelines.
In this sense, presidential debates have become a means of communication and political information during election campaigns. After the Third Wave and the consolidation of democratic systems in Latin America, many countries in the region adopted the idea of holding debates between presidential candidates a few weeks before general elections.
While electoral debates are not so ingrained in Latin America as in the US, where it is now a fifty year-old tradition, several countries in the region are faring better than some in Europe like Spain, where election debates in TV have been more the exception than the rule.
Influence and impact
Exposure to news coverage of the presidential debates influences the perception of the public about who won, so that the time of exposure to this coverage becomes essential to understand its effects. The concept of media dependency suggests however that TV debates tend to reduce the influence on the audience of commentators and reporters, as they offer direct access to events about which people can form an opinion of their own.
A US study has examined the results of an experiment conducted with undecided voters, through a market research tool known as worm. The experiment consisted in examining the real-time response of two small groups of individuals so as to determine the degree of satisfaction or dissatisfaction upon seeing and hearing a candidate on a number of issues. One of the main goals was to check whether the worm graph shown on screen besides the candidate had some effect on viewers who followed the debate. To the authors of this study, the worm graph allows observers to witness instant reactions by the audience to the performance of the candidates, adding drama and interest to the debate.
The study concludes that the influence debates have on citizens is unclear in the real world. One factor explaining why this is so is the fact that political attitudes are hard to change - especially in the case of individuals who are members of partisan organizations.
A similar study on the Canadian 1997 elections concluded that the debate between the candidates had a substantial impact on voting intentions, but that the impact was temporary. For most US political scientists, the influence of presidential debates has to do with "agenda setting". That is, the planting in the course of the debate of a campaign issue, or a concrete policy, that can play a decisive role according to how it is perceived by the public. Still, analysts are very cautious not to overestimate the influence and democratic usefulness of debates in general.
Although they encountered initially some degree of cultural resistance, in most Latin American countries the end of autocracies and the subsequent process of democratization saw the adoption of presidential debates as a means of legitimacy, plurality and consolidation of democratic rule. Two great regional powers, Brazil and Mexico, have been holding election debates since the end of the 60s and have promoted the idea throughout the continent.
In Brazil, the 1989 elections were particularly significant in this sense, since it was the first time in forty years that the largest country in South America was to choose its next president by direct popular vote. The debate was between Fernando Collor de Mello and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Chile is another country that has adopted presidential debates as a way to "conquer the audience." The last Chilean presidential election featured a debate between the nine candidates running for office, two of whom - Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei - held a second, face-to-face debate for the runoff.
Too many empty chairs
Presidential debates have now been established in Peru, Colombia, Paraguay, Haiti, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Uruguay and Guatemala, though unevenly and with several interruptions. This is the case of Honduras, where debates began in 1994 but were absent at the 2005 elections.
El Salvador, on the other hand, held its first presidential debate in 2014 and it was attended by the five presidential candidates. Ecuador’s last debate was the controversial one between Rafael Correa and Guillermo Lasso in 2013. In the case of Ecuador, the scarcity of electoral debates has to do, according to some analysts, to the cooptation of the media by oficialismo (officialism - that is, the government).
In Argentina, presidential candidates have refused to attend debates at national level, but have kept on holding them at sub-national level. In most Argentinian provinces, debates between gubernatorial candidates are perfectly established.
Even though the practice has expanded widely in recent years and is now established in Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica and Peru, in some other countries it has been adopted only partially (at sub-national level) or has been discontinued, as in Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Honduras.
One reason why it has failed to catch on in Latin American societies has to do with a political culture inherited from autocratic traditions and with a still weak (though emerging) public demand, despite the positive effects that presidential debates can have on the voters’ capacity to form their own opinion, and to temporarily reinforce or weaken the electoral impact of the candidates.
But reluctance to participate is also related to the fact that candidates who are leading the opinion polls have little interest in exposing themselves to a debate in which any mistake on their part can harm their chances at the actual polls.
The mass media are quite often the sponsors of presidential debates, but in some cases they are promoted by the electoral authorities (the Supreme Electoral Court in Costa Rica, the Federal Electoral Institute in Mexico) and civil society organizations (e.g. universities).
In any case, debates are important for democracy. They reinforce plurality, they offer direct information without intermediaries, and they convey policy proposals to the citizens so that they can exercise their vote in an informed manner.
The way to more mature and transparent democracies requires a stronger demand on the part of citizens, obliging politicians to submit themselves to public debates. By refusing to attend a debate with his political opponents - Mauricio Macri, Sergio Massa, Margarita Stolbizer, Nicolas Cano and Adolfo Rodriguez Saa -, Argentina’s leading presidential candidate at the forthcoming elections Daniel Scioli has missed a great opportunity to advance the quality of democracy not only in Argentina but in the whole region, where the empty chair is a far more common situation than would be desirable.
This article is an adapted version of the original text, edited by DemocraciaAbierta.