Audacious bet: will Ruto’s high-stakes wager pay off?

Audacious bet: will Ruto’s high-stakes wager pay off?

The DP is itching to clash in the most direct way with the President and Odinga on the Building Bridges Initiative in what is being described as “the first ballot showdown” for the 2022 elections” with stakes high up to the skies

By Kevin Motaroki

The 2010 referendum came as a blessing in disguise for then Eldoret North MP William Ruto. After his famous falling out with then Prime Minister Raila Odinga in ODM and his sacking as a cabinet minister, Ruto was looking for something he could use to prove that indeed he was the reason why the Kalenjin voted for Raila almost to a man in 2007, and that he was a political force to be reckoned with.

Though he was in the Parliamentary Select Committee that negotiated every article of the constitution, he positioned himself in a way that would put him in competition with Odinga, and ended up teaming up with the religious organisations and leading the ‘No’ side in the 2010 referendum on the new constitution.

These are not normal times for DP Ruto who has been isolated by his boss and has been feeling the squeeze from State officers working to undermine him”

Though the ‘No’ side lost with a significant margin, the campaigns did for him what the 2005 referendum had done for Odinga – popularising him among Kenyans and helping solidify support ahead of the 2013 General Election. It also marked the start of his dalliance with the church leaders, which has become his major strategy of reaching the people through generous donations to churches almost every week.

Ten years down the line, now Deputy President William Ruto is itching to clash in the most direct way with his boss and President Uhuru Kenyatta and Odinga on the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), and the proposed referendum to change the constitution.

It has been described as “the first ballot showdown” and “a curtain-raiser for the 2022 General Election” with stakes high up to the skies.
At this moment, a deputy president hoping to succeed his boss in about two years would tread lightly as taking on a president in such a direct way may not be ideal.

But these are not normal times for Dr Ruto who has been isolated by the President and has been feeling the squeeze from State officers working to undermine his chances of succeeding President Kenyatta.

He has been openly campaigning, ignoring the advice of his boss to halt the political events. In several instances, he has indirectly criticized the decisions of his boss while using Odinga as a cover. Meanwhile, his allies have not shied away from directly taking on the head of state.

Ruto and his allies have never masked their disdain for the March 8, 2018 ‘’handshake’ between President Kenyatta and Odinga that birthed BBI. They view the rapprochement between the two leaders as a deliberate attempt to block his path towards ascending to the presidency.

In his efforts to appeal to the masses, he has defined BBI as the minority elite and political dynasties putting their survival above the pressing needs of the majority.

“I don’t know what is being amended…to the best of my knowledge, this whole push is by leaders, not by the people. People at this moment are concerned about jobs, about their livelihoods,” Ruto has said.

If the proposed referendum comes to pass especially before the 2022 elections, and going by the utterances of DP Ruto and his allies on the BBI, it is expected that the deputy president will oppose the proposed amendments to the constitution.

For the deputy president, his opposition will not be because he wholly does not believe in the proposals but rather his key motivation will be to test the extent of his support across the country ahead of the 2022 elections.

It was a tactic that Odinga used in 2005 when he led the Orange brigade against then proposed constitution (commonly called the Wako Draft). In 2005, the movement against the Wako Draft gave birth to ODM and launched a formidable opposition to then incumbent Mwai Kibaki ahead of the 2007 General Election. That rivalry ended up in a contested presidential election, the post-election violence and eventually the grand coalition government that restarted the process towards giving the country the 2010 constitution.

For Ruto, a similar outcome as in 2005 or a close race would be good enough for him as he would have proven that he can mount a challenge against the combined efforts of President Kenyatta and Odinga.

But the strategy is a double-edged sword for the deputy president: a significant loss by his ‘No’ camp in the eventual referendum could bring his high-octane campaign to a screeching halt and see the crafting of new strategies in a political environment that will then be even more hostile to him. Moreover, such a significant loss could see him lose some of his allies especially those from outside the Rift Valley.

Yet that is not the scenario the deputy president’s strategists are looking forward to. Their first priority is to not have the referendum altogether as it could also drain Ruto’s resources ahead of the 2022 General Election, besides worsening his political relations with the President.

The second approach for his strategists has been that if the referendum has to take place then it should be conducted together with the 2022 election.
This has become clear through the deputy president’s allies’ support for the Referendum Bill, 2020, by Ndaragwa MP Jeremiah Kioni, who chairs the National Assembly’s Constitutional Implementation and Oversight Committee (CIOC). On the other hand, proponents of the BBI have vehemently opposed it, arguing that changes to foster inclusivity must be enshrined in the Constitution as the country heads to the next polls.

The Bill, which has stalled at the National Assembly, faces competition from yet another Bill with similar name drafted by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and which is being fronted by the Justice and Legal Affairs Committee (JLAC) of the same House.

While most of the provisions the two bills are largely similar, the key departure point is that the second bill makes no recommendations as to when a referendum, if any, should be conducted. This second bill has the backing of ODM and its leader, Odinga.

The other strategy they have considered in case the President and Odinga’s camps move ahead with preparations for a referendum is to oppose any budgetary allocations to IEBC to conduct the referendum before the 2022 elections. On this, unlike the third basis for revenue sharing among counties in which the deputy president’s allies proved successful, it will be a challenge to marshal enough votes in the National Assembly to shoot down such a budget proposal.

All the same, in the name of testing waters ahead of 2022, the Deputy President will not let such a chance pass without flexing his muscles just to see how far it can take him.

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