Rutos: Who’ll take South Rift vote bloc?

South Rift
South Rift

Over the past week or so, I have read political analyses that argue the current shortage of Kenya’s staple food, maize (and the related sharp increase in the cost of maize flour) will be a key influence in the August general election.

I have to disagree with this view.

My observation is that over the years, Kenya has had many such cases of maize flour shortages leading to unga being either unaffordable or (if the government imposed price controls) unavailable.

But this has never once proved to be a key influencer of voting patterns, provided there was plenty of relatively affordable maize flour by the day of the election itself. Hunger is something we generally forget about as soon as our stomachs are full.

So if not the price of maize flour, or the absence of sugar from the shelves, what then would I consider as a key determinant of the presidential election, in particular?

In my view, the outcome will revolve largely around the comparative electoral strengths of the two Rutos – Deputy President William Ruto, and his most bitter rival for regional political supremacy, Bomet Governor Isaac Rutto.

To give this some background, I would remind you that whereas our founding President Jomo Kenyatta remained unchallenged all the way to the grave, our two subsequent Presidents, who had to face real competition at the ballot box, Daniel Moi and Mwai Kibaki, both knew one thing: Once safely in office, you had to find a way to broaden the political coalition which brought you victory.

For example, we find that Moi after the 1992 election, managed to bring into his fold several Western Kenya MPs who had been elected to Parliament by party tickets other than that of his own Kanu. And after the 1997 election, he actually managed to swallow whole the National Development Party, which was then led by Raila Odinga.

In exchange for high office within Kanu, and a place in the Cabinet, Raila dissolved his NDP in much the same way as various smaller parties did, when their leaders joined Jubilee Party at Kasarani in September last year.

President Kibaki was less successful in this kind of manoeuvre, but he too was able to come to a working relationship with Ford People leader Simeon Nyachae, who had in 2002 been a rival contender for the presidency.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has not had any luck at all in this. He faces much the same united group that opposed him in 2013 – further supported by Rutto. Uhuru has not really been able to expand his electoral base at all.

This expansion is important because the Kenyan political landscape is one invariably littered with broken presidential promises.

As such, no President can hope to seek reelection with his old political coalition intact. There will always be those who feel they cannot face their voters with such clear evidence of broken promises, and ask them to vote for the President again.

Which brings us to the two Rutos.

Ruto is positioning himself as the heir to the Uhuru presidency. As such, he absolutely insists that the Jubilee government has delivered on all its most important promises, and that the country is far better off than when he and the President took over in March 2013.

Rutto, on the other hand, sees no such evidence of promises fulfilled. All he sees is an evolving dictatorship, which has denied the Kenyan people economic opportunity; failed to keep the costs of basic foods at their former lower levels; and a ruling party that moves swiftly to crush dissenting voices.

The question, then, is, which one of them will carry the day within the “Southern Rift” – which in my view is the most crucial of the swing vote regions?

If Ruto can deliver the entire Rift Valley vote for Uhuru as he did in 2013, then the President has a pretty good chance of reelection.

But if Rutto has successfully taken away the Southern Rift vote bloc and delivered it to the opposition National Super Alliance, then Uhuru’s goose is cooked.