As the smoke wafts from the starter’s pistol, the showdown between the only two contenders with a fighting chance at the 2022 presidential election displays a curious reversal of roles.
Deputy President William Ruto is running as the outsider, his campaign an insurgency against the very same establishment he has served as the second-in-command for two terms. He is the protest candidate whipping up emotions against the government “system”, the political and economic elite, and skilfully exploiting public discontent with the economic hardships blamed on President Kenyatta’s administration.
He is up against veteran opposition campaigner and icon of protest politics Raila Odinga, who finds himself in the unusual position of the establishment candidate, defending the record of the Jubilee government and pledging continuity, if elected.
It’s like everything has turned upside down as Dr Ruto unashamedly steals the patented playbook that has kept Mr Odinga relevant and impossible to ignore as champion of the angry and resentful poor and dispossessed through decades of struggle since launch of multi-partyism more than three decades, through four unsuccessful presidential campaigns and stints in government as Cabinet minister and one term as Prime Minister. From his normal perch, it is Mr Odinga who should be complaining about the “Deep State” and machinations to rig him out. It is Mr Odinga who should be whipping up resentment against the mighty and powerful; the “change” candidate running on the platform of economic revolution to take the monopoly of wealth from the elite and redistribute resources to the poor.
There is no doubt that Dr Ruto’s “Hustler Nation” movement, “Bottom Up” approach to development, populist rhetoric and exploitation of the victim card has struck a chord with the masses, and allowed him to make significant inroads into the natural Odinga constituencies in both socio-economic classes and regional blocs. The politician completing two terms as deputy President came into office on the back of a career built on faithful service to the corrupt oligarchy of the Ancien Régime, the brutal denizens of one-party dictatorship.
Unless one goes back to the career of JM Kariuki, a fabulously wealthy politician whose populist politics and campaigns against primitive accumulation made him an enemy of the Jomo Kenyatta regime, it is hard to find in Kenyan history a leader who has so masterfully completed such a stunning turnaround.
Dr Ruto has not only stolen Mr Odinga’s outsider ideology and rhetoric, but for much of the past three or four years has had his principal rival on the defensive. His platform has often smirked of hypocrisy. He is always claiming credit for Jubilee’s success stories yet at the same time launching tirades against President Kenyatta’s failures, and will not bat an eyelid threatening to, once elected, tear down projects he enthusiastically promoted from inception. The “Bottom Up” approach often comes across as a craven exploitation of underclass deprivation; a remake of the Kanu era culture of handouts rather than a structured economic policy and ideological platform.
However, there is no doubt he has caught the imagination of the masses and in many ways forced Mr Odinga into playing catch up. Indeed, when it comes to catchy sloganeering and promotion of populist programmes, Mr Odinga can hold no candle to Dr Ruto.
“Bottom Up” and “Hustler Nation” have become probably the most marketable campaign tools seen in recent times, and the euphoria that greets the Ruto campaign trail wherever he goes, particularly from the young and the poor, cannot be ignored. It would seem at times that Dr Ruto has not only borrowed the usual rhetoric and standpoints of the veteran opposition chief and stolen part of his base, but also cloned himself as a spitting image of vintage Odinga in terms of policy and platforms.
Mr Odinga has been trying to counter Dr Ruto’s gains by unveiling his own economic policy blueprints, the highlights being a social support in cash disbursements to vulnerable families, enhanced support for the jua kali or medium and small enterprise sector, a universal health insurance programme dubbed “Baba Care”, and a pledge of free education up to university level. Those are indeed important proposals, but they have not resonated and generated anywhere near the same level of excitement the rival campaign has.
In many ways, Dr Ruto has managed to package himself as the forward-looking candidate promising fresh new ideas and a break from the past; despite his own dodgy past as a cheerleader for the one-party regime and reactionary opposition to the fight for democracy and the new liberal constitution.
By contrast, Mr Odinga seems stuck in history, recounting, to a young generation that has little interest in heroes of the past, his stellar record as a liberation hero through the fight against one-party dictatorship and champion of the new constitution; alliance with President Kenyatta also served to rob Mr Odinga of one of his key traditional planks as champion of the reform agenda; as well as his base amongst civil society and intelligentsia that has always formed the core of his policy think-tanks.
However, one key event may have rescued a seemingly rudderless organisation. Selection of Ms Martha Karua as running-mate may at first have seemed a risky move if she brought no votes with her from populous Mt Kenya basket that seemed locked by Dr Ruto. However, Ms Karua turned out to be a daring and inspired choice, breathing life into the campaign and exciting a populace that yearned for a break from a contest of the usual suspects.
Ms Karua’s impact was not just because of her being the first ever prospective woman deputy President, but her own stellar record in liberation politics dating back to the struggle for multi-party democracy.
Her selection rejuvenated the Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition Party’s campaign and also started winning hearts and minds amongst a key voting bloc that had previously been dead-set against an Odinga presidency. The ticket also managed to win back the face of a reformist agenda, in contrast to Dr Ruto’s baffling choice of Mathira MP Rigathi Gachagua, also from Mt Kenya but hardly a popular choice even within the Kenya Kwanza Alliance.
The abrasive former district officer came with a mountain of baggage, particularly ethical issues, that add nothing to the Ruto campaign.
His selection actually turned out to be a throwback to retrogressive politics of the past, and in that way brought back memories of a history that Dr Ruto had successfully managed to overcome.