On Tuesday, August 9th, Kenyans will go to the polls to elect the country’s fifth president and the successor to President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is winding up his second and final term.

Although the Independent Electoral and Boundaries (IEBC) has cleared four candidates to run for President, the contest is essentially a two-horse race between Deputy President William Samoei Ruto and former Premier and veteran opposition leader Raila Amolo Odinga, who is making his fifth stab for the job.

The stakes are high, and the polls predict a tight race.

Until about six months ago, William Ruto, who has mounted an aggressive grassroots campaign since 2017, led in the polls with significant margins. Recently, however, all reliable polls place him between 38-39% while Raila Odinga has moved from a low of 14% last year to a lead of about 42 to 43%. The latest IPSOS survey placed Mr Odinga ahead with 47% against Ruto’s, 41%.1https://www.ipsos.com/en-ke/ipsos-opinion-poll-7-days-general-elections-mr-odinga-leads-presidential-race In a recent article published in The Elephant, pollster Tom Wolf compared the results of recent surveys of three of Kenya’s established polling firms and found that Odinga’s gains were significant to the extent that, if all the respondents who declined or failed to name any candidate in these three polls are removed from the calculation, the results would give Mr. Odinga a first-round win2https://www.theelephant.info/long-reads/2022/07/03/polls-and-ballots-getting-into-the-weeds-of-election-based-survey-research/ The Elephant – Speaking truth to power. (a candidate has to win 50+1% of the votes to win).  Still, the final results in August will depend on a complex combination of other factors such as turn-out and voter motivation, meaning things might still change.

For many observers, the elections were a shoo-in for William Ruto, who framed his campaign in a quasi-Marxist class differential narrative of “hustlers” and “dynasties”, and who, for the past five years, singularly kept the country fixated on succession politics by energetic campaigns disguised as “development” tours across the country. While so much may change before the elections, this article highlights some of the reasons why Deputy President William Ruto’s poll numbers appear stuck at 38%-41% and why he is no longer polled as the “favorite” to win the polls.

First, the estrangement between Mr. Ruto and his boss President Kenyatta, who has thrown his weight behind Mr. Raila Odinga, seemed at first to work in Ruto’s favor. Playing victim, Ruto took the opportunity to distance himself from the baggage of incumbency and almost succeeded in apportioning the post-covid economic crisis to the President and the opposition candidate, despite Mr. Odinga not being in government. However, as Mr. Ruto continued to sustain direct attacks on the outgoing president and distract from his core messaging that had won him traction with the masses, he appears to be struggling to win “undecided” voters, especially those who view Mr. Kenyatta favorably and also those who struggle with the optics of brazen frontal attacks to a sitting President from his “principal assistant.”

Second, Kenya’s pluralistic politics are based on coalition building and the team capable of summoning the broadest form of elite consensus often has a head start. From the get-go, buoyed by his previous impressive poll numbers, and knowing first-hand how fragile coalitions are, Mr. Ruto was reluctant to form any coalition, insisting that anyone wishing to team up with him join his political party, the United Democratic Alliance (UDA).  On his part, Raila Odinga cobbled together the Azimio-One Kenya coalition party made up of a hodgepodge of about 26 political parties, thus cajoling a vast array of political elites from across the country. As the political shifts became apparent, Mr. Ruto caved and formed the Kenya Kwanza coalition, an alliance of parties comprising 12 others. However, UDA does not hide the fact that, in Kenya Kwanza, they run the show. The delay in responding to Kenya’s current political realities might prove costly. Recent surveys place the Azimio coalition ahead with about 42% popularity compared to Kenya Kwanza, at 35%, a seven-point difference well outside the margins of error.3https://www.tifaresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/TIFA-Poll-_-Presidential-Candidate-Voting-Intentions-_June-2022.pdf. See also, https://www.infotrakresearch.com/the-infotrak-voice-of-the-people-poll-08-june-2022/

Third, and related to the second point, is how both campaigns have summoned and brought into being their intended voting blocs through political messaging. While the Azimio coalition has targeted a countrywide approach to building a broad coalition consisting of winning the rest of the country, Kenya Kwanza has premised its campaign on what Daily Nation editor, Mutuma Mathiu, refers to as a “minimalist Jubilee strategy of 2013 and 2017: Get the bulk of the votes from a few high-yield areas, principally Rift Valley and Mt Kenya,” and just top up a few votes from the rest of the country.4https://nation.africa/kenya/blogs-opinion/opinion/why-opinion-polls-on-elections-can-have-you-end-up-in-hospital-3888010 This strategy helped Uhuru Kenyatta win the last two elections but seems risky now given the fallout between the president and his deputy. More importantly, in a country where ethnicity plays into political competition, the reality of a coalition that aims to reproduce and entrench the voting patterns of the 2013 and 2017 general elections is raising serious questions around national cohesion, sustainable peace, and inclusivity.

The choice of a running mate for the two leading candidates was a pivotal moment for how the tide in the race shifted. In May, Raila Odinga overtook William Ruto in the polls for the first time after appointing Martha Karua, a high-profile and independent-minded lawyer/politician, as his running mate—the first woman on a major political party presidential ticket. On his part, Deputy President William Ruto settled on the less known and wealthy first-time Member of Parliament, Geoffrey Rigathi Gachagua. His selection has intensified fears about the potential for corruption under a Ruto administration considering that Ruto has in the past had his fair share of corruption-related charges, mostly around controversial land dealings. Rigathi is currently facing multi-million-dollar corruption charges at the Anti-Corruption courts, which has seen some of his bank accounts frozen. A few days ago, he was ordered by the court to repay 202 million shillings ($1.7 million) which it determined were the proceeds of crime and corruption.5https://nation.africa/kenya/news/rigathi-gachagua-loses-sh200-million-to-the-state-3894800

Understandably, the selection of Martha Karua as Raila Odinga’s running mate has highlighted the stark choices that voters in Kenya face at the coming polls, as well as the role of history in Kenya’s immediate future. For Kenya Kwanza and many of its leading lights, they argue for the erasure of history, suggesting that history is insignificant and that the candidates’ histories should not necessarily determine how voters make their choices today. The Azimio coalition insists that voters should look to history and a person’s past to determine their future conduct. Meanwhile, the coalition has often highlighted the political histories and struggles that have defined both Raila Odinga and Martha Karua’s careers.

Raila remains Kenya’s longest political detainee, following his detention for nearly a decade by the Daniel Arap Moi (Kenya’s second President) authoritarian regime in the 80s. Both he and Karua comprise the pantheon of what is termed Kenya’s second liberation—the epoch that ushered in political pluralism and significant constitutional changes, with Karua standing out as among the few lawyers who represented political prisoners in court. Mr Odinga, fondly referred to as baba (Swahili for father) is considered Kenya’s foremost nationalist, and arguably the father of Kenya’s progressive constitution that was promulgated when he served as Kenya’s Prime Minister (2008-2013). On the opposite end, with the barest reform credentials, William Ruto and Rigathi Gachagua built their wealth and careers as functionaries of the then ruling party, KANU (Kenya African National Union), with Rigathi serving as a District Officer in former President Moi’s government.

Perhaps the ongoing political shift and the changing poll numbers in Kenya’s presidential race come down to the fact that, for the first time in Kenya’s political history, the two leading coalitions represent stark choices that point to a nascent, yet visible ideological divide. As one of Kenya’s most reliable pollster argues, “the two leading (coalitions) are clearly differentiated – and voters can identify each by their key attractions and headwinds”.6https://www.ipsos.com/en-ke/ipsos-opinion-poll-7-days-general-elections-mr-odinga-leads-presidential-race

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