How to pick a running mate

Uhuruto Ticket

President Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto during the launch of Jubilee Party Manifesto at Kasarani stadium on June 26, 2017 ahead of the 2017 General Election.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

Kenyans are waiting with bated breath to find out who the major presidential contenders will pick as running mates.

In the design of the 2010 Constitution, the head of the ticket picks a running mate who would be deputy president should the ticket be victorious. But make no mistake about it – the running mate is the sidekick, not the main act.

But he, or she, is more than a flower girl because they are a heartbeat away from the presidency. Still, they are second fiddle – secondary so long as the President is fully in the saddle.

However, it would be an error in judgement to treat with frivolity the station of the running mate. Let’s see what’s at stake.

The first, and most important, criterion for the right running mate is the person’s ability to step up at a moment’s notice should disaster, illness, or the law make the sitting president nugatory. This means the deputy president must be prepared on Day One to assume power in the event of a vacuum in the office of the chief executive.

This requirement of preparedness to lead the country should be the most important consideration in picking a running mate.

In Kenya, this is doubly so because the DP serves for the remainder of the term of the presidential election cycle. We saw in Tanzania Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan rise to the top last year when President John Magufuli died.

Second, the top of the ticket should choose a running mate with whom he has chemistry. This need for compatibility cannot be gainsaid. An awkward, or disagreeable pair can doom a candidacy, or make for a dysfunctional two-sum as we’ve seen with Jubilee’s Uhuru Kenyatta and his overly ambitious numero dos William Ruto.

Like a marriage from hell, an unruly deputy can destroy a government because in Kenya the deputy president can’t be fired, or easily dislodged from power.

That’s why the Kenyan state has been rendered somewhat dysfunctional by Mr Ruto’s antics and bullheadedness. Number Two must never tell Number One to go jump in a lake. Look for the potential for insubordination before picking a running mate.

Thirdly, ideological simpatica is indispensable. The candidate shouldn’t pick a partner with whom they have little in common in terms of major policy questions and the philosophy of governing. That would be a volatile mix bound for a dead end. Since they will not align perfectly on all matters, the running mate should only express his disagreements behind closed doors and keep a stiff upper lip outdoors.

Complete discretion

Never should disagreements between the two spill into the public arena as we’ve seen with Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto. Never. Collective responsibility and complete discretion are the key watchwords. It’s a security threat when the two top officials go mano-a-mano, especially in public. In that case, Number Two must ship out.

Fourth, presidential elections are about both the fact and appearance of inclusion. The ticket must give a nod to inclusivity, not just of dominant groups but of those marginalised and women. Even if the running mate doesn’t hail from those historically excluded, he or she must have a profile that indicates a strong commitment to those who’ve been despised in society. What’s the running mate’s record and history on women’s issues, people with disabilities, smaller groups, or the least privileged? Is the running mate a person of empathy? Is he or she trustworthy? In no event should the candidate pick a chauvinist – of any hue – as running mate. Presidential candidates must give hope, not fear. A running mate must be sunny.

Fifth, the running mate should balance the ticket and not be ethically challenged. Presidential elections are about the mathematics of addition, not subtraction. While it’s true that the candidate can’t please everyone – and shouldn’t try to do so – he must signal that he sees and hears everyone. If he comes from one end of the republic, he must choose a partner from the opposite end. Importantly, he can’t accept the diktats of anyone, region, or group in selecting a running mate. That doesn’t mean he can’t listen to entreaties, but he must treat them only as such and put them in the basket of suggestions. Doing otherwise is damaging and would smack of capture. Major candidates must be resolute.

Sixth, and finally, elections are won and lost by the quality of the candidate and their policies – unless there’s rigging – and not by the choice of running mate. The 2022 elections won’t be different. Voters don’t elect a president because of the running mate. However, the candidates must choose a running mate who “completes” them, or minimises their weaknesses, not exacerbates them. In other words, running mates must “complement” their principals. A corrupt candidate, for example, must choose a partner who’s above reproach like Caesar’s wife. A thief shouldn’t double down by picking another thief. Let’s now get our popcorn, sit, and relax as we watch the running mate derbies.


Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W. Wong Professor at Buffalo Law School. He’s chair of KHRC. @makaumutua

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