Raila should strive to appeal to Ruto’s base

Opposition leader Raila Odinga addressing the demonstrator in Eastleigh Nairobi on March 20, 2023. 

Opposition leader Raila Odinga addressing the demonstrator in Eastleigh Nairobi on March 20, 2023.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

Jesus was once before tax collectors and sinners. Pharisees wondered why he welcomed his opponents “and ate with them”.

Jesus gave them this parable: “Suppose you have 100 sheep and lose one. Doesn’t the shepherd leave the 99 in the open to look for the lost sheep? When he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.

Then he calls his friends and neighbours and says: ‘Rejoice, I have found my lost sheep.’ There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

He gave a second parable: “Suppose a woman has 10 silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search until she finds it? When she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbours and says: ‘Rejoice with me, I have found my lost coin’.”

Jesus continued with a third parable: “A man had two sons. The younger one said: ‘Father, give me my share of the estate’. So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got all he had, set off for a distant country and squandered his wealth. After he had spent everything, there was a famine, and he began to be in need. He hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.” 

“When he came to his senses, he said: ‘How many of my father’s servants have food to spare, and here I am starving! I will go back and say: Father, I have sinned...I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your servants.” 

“While still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. He said to his servants: ‘Bring the best robe and dress him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate’.

“When the older son came near the house, he heard music. He was angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered: ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat’.” 

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate because your brother was dead but is alive again, he was lost and is found.’”

Jesus explains the logic and rationale of the politics of reaching out to one’s opponents. There is no election where one wins with all votes unless it is a dictatorship.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un got 100 per cent votes in 2014. Iraq's former president Saddam Hussein won 100 per cent votes in a 2002 referendum on whether he was to continue ruling. Former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il won 99.9 per cent of the votes in 2009. Raul Castro got 99.4 per cent in 2008 and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad secured 97.6 per cent in 2007.

Maturing democracy

Kenya’s presidential contests have been close, a sign of a maturing democracy.

In 2007, the electoral commission announced a two per cent difference between the winner Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga. In 2013, the difference between Uhuru Kenyatta and Odinga was six per cent.

In 2017, it was nine per cent while in 2022, the difference between the winner William Ruto and Odinga was about two per cent. Under these circumstances, how should the winner or the strongest loser of a presidential poll view supporters of his rival?

Following Jesus’ logic, the answer is simple – positively. He should seek to harness opportunities for the next election. He or she should institute a strategy of reaching out to the opponent’s followers. 

The aim would be to tilt the small difference. The rationale is simple – a politician’s supporters are usually split in two. There are the core and radicals who often constitute 70 per cent of one’s support base. The second cohort is of marginal voters, also known as “cross-overs”. These often switch loyalties. The trick, therefore, lies in approaching the opponents’ marginal supporters. 

After Donald Trump’s shock victory in the 2016 US presidential election with a very small difference, his rivals deployed a smart conversion strategy targeting marginal voters. 

They succeeded by targeting suburban women, leading to Trump’s loss in 2020.

Dr Ruto is aware of this strategy. This explains his constant mission to reach out to regions that did not support him in 2022 in sufficient numbers.

Odinga is doing the opposite. His claim that the August 9, 2022, presidential vote was stolen can only appeal to his base.

That claim does nothing but alienates him more from Ruto’s supporters. The violent demonstrations embed belief amongst Ruto’s supporters that he is a sore loser.

Odinga’s protestations ignore the fact that a voter is a fair and reasonable person – everyone knows it is too early to judge Ruto’s government. The destruction witnessed during the protests fuels the perception that Odinga does not respect property.

Reaching out to an opponent’s supporters does not apply to Odinga only. 

Leaders should spend more time thinking about how to convert those that did not vote for them. They should put themselves in the shoes of those voters, get to understand their viewpoints and make every effort to make amends. 

Strategies that only appeal to one’s core base are short-term. The goal must be to expand and have an all-encompassing base come the next election. 

Such a strategy calls for self-criticism, a conciliatory approach and all-embracing positioning. 

If, for example, a leader is in charge of some development resources, fair and equitable sharing within an electoral unit would help assuage the opponents. 

That is what Jesus meant when he gave the parables of the lost sheep, coin and the prodigal son.

Irungu Kang’ata is the Murang’a Governor