Can TV debates sway voter opinion?

Political followers argue about the pros and cons of TV debates in the wake of the Chhoekhor-Tang constituency bye-elections

When the two candidates of Chhoekhor-Tang constituency faced off at the podium weeks back, many people who witnessed the debate questioned if reality TV debates really influence voter opinion.

Some voters feel that the performance of political candidates during television debates mostly determine the capability of the candidates. Dawa being a skilled orator stole the show during the debates, according to netizens.

Elections are a hard grind for political candidates and involves a relentless regimen of travelling and announcing pledges but television debate is a platform for candidates and political parties to reach a wider voter base more easily. However, how much of this really influences voter behavior? TV debates can help candidates make an impression on undecided voters and is an opportunity to reach out to the masses in one go, agreed many.

There has been outstanding political TV debates and also memorable and unforgettable gaffes made by candidates. Debates are entertaining. Today in the political arena, TV debates are an important part of the political theatre of elections.

Do TV debates sway voters?

Business Bhutan interviewed people randomly to assess if TV debates indeed helped them make a firm decision to choose their candidate and vote. Many felt that TV debates gave a sure footing to candidates to garner votes while a few disagreed.

Dr. (Phd) Passang Dorji, MP of Bartsham-Shongphu Constituency said it depends from constituencies to constituencies. “It especially matters for the large constituencies because the candidates cannot meet people individually,” he said adding that it also helps voters not in the country to make their choice and see their candidates on TV. “Also there are people especially who have not been able to meet their candidates in person or attend the campaign meetings and it influences their opinion. In democracy, TV debate is important; not every candidate can meet everyone in their constituency.”

Further he said that TV debate gives platform or opportunities for candidates to campaign and people to choose and make informed choices. “There are also some small disadvantages associated with TV debates like if you are unable to express properly and if you end up saying what you did not intend to say then it backfires. Some comments will back fire if you are not careful. Most of the people live out of their constituency and TV debates are important for these people to choose their candidate based on their delivery. Another disadvantage is, you might be a very good candidate but if you are not a good orator then you lose out,” he added.

Meanwhile, former Economics Affairs Minister Norbu Wangchuk said that it is an important forum for the candidates given the platform. “In the brief time the candidates are able to reach out to potential voters you explain the dreams and pledges for your constituency and give an informed choice for the voters. Through the TV debates the personality and capabilities of the candidates are showcased,” he said.

“Although it adds pressure on the candidates but I do not see any disadvantages, rather it is important for the voters.”

A teacher and a political events follower seeking anonymity said although people should be going beyond public debates to select the most deserving candidate, things are not happening the way.  “Some percentage of the electorates who are either working in private sectors or government agencies do not get time to attend the campaigns, and civil servants are kept apolitical. For some, the way is to watch the debates and see what appears on social media platforms. So, what I feel is, a well-fought debate would in some sense sway the voters for the reason aforementioned,” he added.

A data professional from Nyingnor, who follows the polling side of politics, said TV debates suffer from a self-selection bias and the kind of people who watch political debates on TV tend to be people who are political anyway. “These are the same people who make their candidate selections as soon as the names come out or the parties are selected. The undecided voters you want to target are unlikely to be swayed by TV debates, because they’re unlikely to be watching those at all,” he said.

A private consultant based in Thimphu said that one must be conscious of voter behavior, which is quite often influenced by party affiliation, loyalty, and one’s relations with the candidate. These factors must be taken into account too.”Television debate is a platform for candidates and political parties to reach a wider voter base, so that they can convince and influence voters to vote for their respective candidates or parties.”

“There’s this perception that debates are this great democratic tool, where voters can find out what candidates stand for and how good they really are. Debates help candidates reach hundreds of voters in a single event, so candidates often prepare rigorously, hoping to gain an edge with undecided voters. And major TV networks usually line up pundits to provide hours of analysis afterward,” says Kinley Dema, a businesswoman.

A voter based in Thimphu said that TV debates are advantageous to a certain extent. “But at the end the votes are from rural, Bhutan is always swayed by how big the family is,” she added.

Chencho Dema from Thimphu