I think it is safe to say that Kenya’s 2017 election is a lot more about 2022 than it is about deciding who will be Kenya’s president over the next five years. And for that we have to thank Deputy President William Ruto. In 2013 Ruto defied all odds and served as kingmaker for Uhuru Kenyatta. In exchange, Kenyatta promised to support his stab at the presidency in 2022, assuming Kenyatta wins reelection this August.
At the moment the odds are in favor of Kenyatta winning reelection, either fairly or unfairly.
Which makes a lot of the campaigning in this cycle about building alliances and potential national coalitions for Ruto’s 2022 stab at the presidency. To this end three important narratives are emerging that specifically relate to Ruto’s quest to be Kenya’s 5th president.
- Stop Raila Odinga at all costs: The only man standing between William Ruto and the presidency is Odinga. A surprise Odinga win this August would deal a serious blow to Ruto’s presidential ambitions. As I have noted before, Ruto’s political following has remained largely transactional, and dependent on the constant flow of resources. If out of power these resources would certainly dry. In addition, Ruto has only recently acquired enormous wealth, which means that he still lacks the deep rootedness among Kenya’s economic elite that would afford him protection like it has for the Moi, Kibaki, Odinga, and Kenyatta families. A double loss of political and economic power would be too steep a fall to recover from. If Odinga loses, that will certainly be the end of his political career and will provide a wide opening for Ruto to raid his vote-rich strongholds in preparation for future elections.
- Have a negotiation-proof Kenyatta succession plan: It is common knowledge that Kenyatta’s promise to back Ruto in 2022 is not credible. Whatever his personal commitments to Ruto, Kenyatta’s political base will be independent enough to back candidates of their own choice in 2022. And as a former president, Kenyatta will have no power to compel political and economic elites to back the candidate of his choice. Which is why Ruto has sought to cement the credibility of Kenyatta’s promise by building a strong political party in Jubilee Party. JP is supposed to tie Kenyatta’s hands by coupling the political destinies of the Ruto and Kenyatta wings of the ruling coalition in both 2017 and 2022. If this scheme succeeds, the de facto party leader (i.e. Ruto) will have an enormous upper hand in influencing the public political behavior of elites allied to Kenyatta in 2022, perhaps enough to keep them faithful to Kenyatta’s public commitments. If this sounds familiar it is because a variant of this has been done before, by Moi through KANU following the death of Jomo Kenyatta in 1978.
- Consolidate the Rift Valley vote: Ruto is no Moi, yet. Which means that he will continue to struggle to cement the Rift Valley vote, especially this year. Isaac Ruto might surprise him in Bomet (and parts of Kericho). And in the future Gideon Moi will certainly make a run for Elgeyo Marakwet, in addition to Baringo and Nakuru (and the wider Rift vote). All to say that, as a politician, Ruto is at once extremely powerful and vulnerable. He is powerful on account of being Deputy President with seemingly unlimited access to state resources. But he is also incredibly vulnerable, especially because his own backyard is littered with people who would soon see him tossed into the dustbin of history. In this sense he is no Kenyatta or Odinga, both of whom enjoy near-fanatical support in their respective bases and do not have any serious elite challengers.
All this to say that Deputy President William Ruto probably has the most to lose in this August’s presidential election. Which probably means that he will also work the hardest of any of the leading national politicians this cycle. And work hard he will, being one of the most electrifying national politicians on the stump (perhaps second only to Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho). This, of course, is good news for the incumbent Jubilee Party and President Kenyatta’s reelection prospects.