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September 19, 2018

Running two campaigns could misfire

Two slots
Two slots

The key to understanding Kenyan presidential elections, at a time like this when there is so much distracting drama, is to keep an eye on the big picture.

We are about to enter the final month of the campaign period. And even though Kenyan presidential elections are always very close, historically, we would by now be able to confidently predict who the likely winner will be.

But this election is different from previous elections in which we had a serving President seeking reelection – and which, incidentally, the serving Presidents have always won.

For example, by this stage in the previous election cycles, we would have already seen prominent opposition leaders deserting their colleagues to either join the governing coalition or to go it alone.

These opposition leaders would be doing this in obedience to the plans carefully laid out by the President for striking a deadly blow to his rivals. And it is this opposition crack-up that would signal His Excellency’s final march to victory.

But in this case, it is the coalition in power that seems to be losing prominent supporters. Specifically, in the Rift Valley, where we first saw Bomet Governor Isaac Rutto cast his lot with the National Super Alliance. And more recently Uasin Gishu Governor Jackson Mandago threatened to work with the opposition if his most prominent opponent was not immediately forced to withdraw from the race.

So, keeping an eye on that “big picture” we must ask: How is it possible that two influential governors, each potentially supported by a major sub-tribe of the Kalenjin community, would even consider such open rebellion against President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party?

For there are two key factors in Kenyan presidential politics:

First, it is all about building regional coalitions, as no one tribal community has the numbers to win on its own.

Second, is that what matters most is to keep your own coalition intact, while working to bring about “elite fracture” in your rival’s team. In political science theory, such elite fracture is regarded as a far more potent signal of a coming loss of power (or a failure to capture power) by a ruling elite, than the size of crowds who turn up to cheer for the rival team at their rallies.

It’s true that the NASA deputy presidential candidate, Kalonzo Musyoka, has also faced something of a rebellion in his political backyard. But it’s nowhere near as serious as what Deputy President William Ruto faces.

This brings us to what may perhaps be the fundamental question on this presidential election: Is it too late for Uhuru to turn the tables on the opposition NASA?

Admittedly, the President has faced a series of unprecedented crises that were not of his own making: A record-breaking drought; unending strikes in the public health sector; effective propaganda by his political rivals, which paint even his signal achievements like the new Mombasa-Nairobi railway as being, primarily, avenues for grand corruption; and so on.

But more potent than these has been a purely psychological factor, which has frustrated any possibility of the President winning an easy reelection:

For all intents and purposes, the President’s Jubilee Party seems to be running two election campaigns at the same time: The current one ( 2017 ) and the subsequent election to be held in 2022. While the opposition is only running one ( 2017 ).

I suppose that is the price you pay for coming up with an electoral pact which binds Ruto to support Uhuru for two consecutive elections, on the understanding that Uhuru and his Mt Kenya vote bloc will then support Ruto in 2022.

In the circumstances, Uhuru’s victory in 2017 will only make sense to those who support Ruto, if it is guaranteed to serve as a facilitator to Ruto’s ascension to the presidency some five years from now.

This may have sounded brilliant back in 2013, when the two first resolved to work together.

But it’s clear now that it makes for a certain lack of focus on the immediate election campaign, which currently is not going very well for the President.

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