An international delegation of political debate organizers arrived Tuesday at Hofstra University to learn from the match-up between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Gov. Mitt Romney—a TV event that many Americans take for granted.
The group included those who’ve staged debates in Jamaica, Nigeria, Colombia, Serbia and Ghana. Although divergent governing styles often make debates difficult to organize—Nigeria, for example, once had 22 presidential candidates on the same stage—most reported decreased election-related violence as a result.
“We are basically learning from each other, but there are political differences,” said Zoran Stanojevic of Radio Television Serbia. “You can take some examples…but not all of them.”
He cited a recent parliamentary election debate in which seven candidates were given three minutes to respond to each question, leaving time for only three questions. In other countries, some political parties and incumbent presidents have been reluctant to participate in debates.
Most watched on Tuesday will be the town-hall style debate format slated for the second US presidential debates in which the opponents will field questions from about a dozen undecided voters in addition to the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley.
“We’re all very interested in seeing just how this town-hall format works,” said Trevar Fearon, advisor to the Jamaica Debates Commission.
In Jamaica, like Ghana and Nigeria, where debates grew more popular over the past decade, less bloodshed was reported on Election Day. That’s because instead of campaigns attacking personalities, the debates force candidates to take specific stances on issues for which they can later be held accountable.
Candidates that refuse to participate often pay the political price. Carolina Calderon Guillot, executive director of the Bolivar Political Debates in Colombia, said a leading mayoral candidate took a hit in the polls when an empty chair was saved for him on stage beside his six opponents.
“This had a very big impact on this candidate,” she said. “And, of course, this candidate participated in the next debate.”
Aside from empty chairs, the delegates noted other themes in the current US presidential debate that can be found abroad, such as the debate organizers being accused of bias and facing headaches from campaign lawyers trying to sway the format. But all face unique issues.
Fearon, of Jamaica’s commission, said the prime minister can set elections with only four weeks’ notice on a whim, leaving limited time to iron out the logistics.
“We can try to read the tea leaves, but we will not know when the elections will be held,” he said. On the upside, participation is on the rise. He added: “It is becoming more and more difficult for the political parties to deicide that they will not debate.”