U.S. television viewers watch presidential debates in numbers that rival the Super Bowl and the Olympics. And there are no commercials. They’ve become the major events of the weeks leading up to Election Day, watched live online via Facebook and Twitter.
Televised presidential debates have been a regular feature of U.S. presidential elections for the last 40 years. And live showdowns between the parties’ major candidates have likewise become a fixture in democratic elections around the globe for at least the last 20 years.
South Africa’s first presidential debate in 1994 was part of that nation’s turning-point election between Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk. More recently in Canada, Justin Trudeau’s debate performance is thought by some to have helped his Liberal Party win the general election in 2015.
Most of the countries in the European Union have televised debates, as do Malawi, Indonesia, India, Uruguay, Iran, Liberia, and other countries.
As Joseph Korto of the Liberia Equal Rights Party commented, “The greatest thing about this debate is to see Liberian presidential candidates sitting here and talking to each other and trying to convince voters rather than being in the bush and shooting at each other.”
In total, 78 countries hold political debates based on the American model.
The U.S. Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonprofit group that sponsors and produces the U.S. debates, also gives assistance to countries that want to establish debates of their own. The commission sends teams of experts to advise countries on how to run debates and host workshops on best practices, where debate organizers from around the world share ideas and experiences.
Unlike the political commercials that flood the airwaves in election season, the debates present opposing points of view in a give-and-take setting that lets each voter decide which candidate makes a better case. And that makes for better democracies, and sometimes great television.