A clash is looming between two gubernatorial candidates in Taita Taveta over the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) party ticket.
A falling-out between former Governor John Mruttu and public policy advocacy specialist Stephen Mwakesi could threaten to complicate the selection of a flag-bearer for the seat ahead of next year's polls.
The apparent split came to the fore after Mr Mwakesi conspicuously skipped Deputy President William Ruto's rallies on Thursday.
His absence has triggered speculation that he has fallen out with a section of party officials rumoured to prefer Mr Mruttu's candidacy.
Mr Mwakesi steered clear of DP Ruto's rallies, attended by Mr Mruttu, and instead held meetings with residents of Mbololo in Voi sub-county.
It has emerged that on Wednesday night, the DP met with the former governor and Mr Mwakesi at a hotel in Mwatate ahead of his rallies on Thursday as part of efforts to find a suitable ticket-bearer for UDA.
But during his address to residents, the DP did not publicly endorse Mr Mruttu as the party's flag-bearer.
Addressing the rallies on Thursday, Mr Mruttu declared his support for DP Ruto and revealed that he will seek to recapture the seat through UDA.
Mr Mruttu said he supports the bottom-up economic model touted by Dr Ruto because it will fix the economy.
"My reason for joining UDA is that it supports ordinary citizens, who are suffering because of poor leadership," he said.
The former governor had been hesitant to openly declare his party of choice though he attended Mr Ruto's meetings in Taita Taveta.
In the 2017 General Election, Mr Mruttu, who contested as an independent candidate after failing to get the ODM ticket, lost his seat to Governor Granton Samboja.
Mr Samboja contested on a Wiper party ticket and garnered 37,079 votes against Mr Mruttu's 21,596 votes.
In a statement, Mr Mwakesi assured voters that he was still in the race for the governor’s seat.
"In this regard and for the avoidance of doubt, please be advised that I am a contender in UDA for the position of governor," he said.
Mr Mwakesi said Dr Ruto had assured aspirants that the party will conduct fair nominations before presenting a candidate to voters. He said other leaders from the region were free to join the race on a UDA ticket.
"UDA is a party built on fairness and democracy. It has been a position frequently stated by the party leader that (the party has no preferred candidates,” he said.
“I welcome the interest expressed by the former governor to be a part of the membership of the party and to run as a gubernatorial candidate."
He asked the former governor to officially join the party.
"I would like to encourage Mr Mruttu to now make the bold decision and join UDA formally. We, as founder members of the party, will gladly receive him at the party headquarters in Mwatate," he said.
Mr Mwakesi said Taita Taveta voters will have the final say on who becomes their next governor.
"For now, let's work for the people. They are the ones to decide who the candidate will be," he said.
In an interview, UDA county coordinator Scaver Masale said no one has coerced Mr Mwakesi to shelve his gubernatorial ambition and support Mr Mruttu.
He said no such agreements were made on Wednesday.
Mr Masale said the party will hold nominations for all positions and dismissed claims that the party leader preferred Mr Mruttu over Mr Mwakesi.
"I cannot speak on his (Mwakesi) behalf on why he failed to attend the rallies. We were with him on Wednesday night and no one mentioned such claims," he said.
He said Mr Mwakesi was a diehard supporter of the party and he was still in the race for the county's top seat.
"All candidates will go through nominations and no one will be forced to step down for another aspirant unless they agree by themselves. I want to assure our aspirants that the nominations will be free and fair," he said.
In a previous interview, Woman Representative Lydia Haika, UDA’s point person in Taita Taveta, indicated that party officials were negotiating an amicable agreement between the two aspirants.
She said UDA officials in the county had been meeting the contestants to agree on who will carry the party's ticket.
"Should they fail to agree, then they will be forced to go through nominations, (and) I assure you that they will be free and fair. UDA will be the most transparent party in this country," she said.
Seven candidates have expressed their interest in unseating Mr Samboja.
The other candidates are Mwatate MP Andrew Mwadime, former senator Dan Mwazo, communications and advocacy specialist Patience Nyange, community development expert Rachel Mwakazi and lawyer Onesmus Mwinzi.