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A visit to the United States National Democratic Institute

Thursday, July 25 2013

THE number of electoral debating groups worldwide is increasing as more and more, civil society recognises the need for independently hosted political debates. The Chamber’s CEO, a Commissioner of the Trinidad and Tobago Debates Commission (TTDC) recently represented the Commission at the Debates Best Practices Symposium in Washington, DC hosted by the National Democratic Institute and the Commission on Presidential Debates. The organisers of the symposium invited several nations to share and learn from each other’s experiences with debates.

The group represented a mix of nations at different stages of development of hosting national political debates. Each nation came from different levels, ranging from experienced nations such as USA and Jamaica to newer entrants like Afghanistan and Serbia and those like TT with limited experience to date. Every nation brought something different to the table from challenges to triumphs, but all agreed that without independent and transparent debates, important character and issue differences between candidates might never be brought out to the voting public, thereby substantially impacting decisions, especially of the undecided voter.

Everyone was asked to prepare a short presentation on their country’s debating experiences and the approaches and lessons learnt in organising the debates. What was interesting to note was that even though each country’s Debates Commission was at different stages, there were similarities in their experiences, for example, getting agreement with the political parties, choosing the moderator and funding.

Two well experienced moderators for the US Presidential Debates, Bob Schieffer and Jim Lehrer shared their experiences at the symposium. Jim Lehrer, author of the book Tension City, based on his moderating experiences, highlighted several quotes from participants of US Presidential Debates. One participant noted, “If the debate is concentrated on the major issues and the views of the two individuals on those issues, then it is of service to the people.” Another stated, “I am convinced that the debates I went through… actually helped me to be a better president.”

During the session, participants broke out into the different regional networks. The Caribbean network included Jamaica, Guyana, Belize and Trinidad and Tobago. This network is in the process of signing a Memorandum of Understanding to assist with building more political debates organisations’ in the region. The regional network will receive funding from the NDI to assist more Caribbean countries in forming debates commissions, and will start holding discussions shortly with at least five other Caribbean countries.

The symposium was quite helpful to the network, especially since Belize, Guyana and TT will be holding debates for upcoming elections. TTDC wishes to thank the NDI and CPD for their continued support and assistance to countries interested in developing a culture of political debates.

However, according to Jim Lehrer, one debate alone does not help with bringing out all the major issues. Political debates should be viewed — and produced - as events that substantially impact the election of a country’s leader — they are not game shows. With Local Government Elections constitutionally due this year, TTDC made the decision to host at least two debates ahead of the elections.

But these multiple debates do require serious funding and the number of debates will be determined by the generosity of Corporate Trinidad and Tobago.

With the support of the business community and the commitment of the parties to debate, we will move one step further in the direction of a mature democracy.

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