Kenya: A win in Kibra by-election could shape the ruling party structure
A crucial by-election in Nairobi has widened the rifts within the ruling Jubilee Party, as well as pushing the main opposition party back into familiar territory.
While the Kibra by-election is, on paper, just a simple election to replace the late legislator Ken Okoth, it has drawn Kenya’s political elite into positions that could indicate a looming shake-up.
- The November 7 by-election is crucial to Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) due to its history as the centre of Odinga’s Nairobi base.
- While internal party rifts and the collapse of the 2017 opposition coalition had already complicated ODM’s chances, the decision by the ruling party to field a candidate in the by-election may hurt Odinga’s rapprochement with Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta.
- The campaign has pushed Odinga’s allies into a familiar position, with claims in early October that the ruling party and electoral body may be colluding to rig the election.
A loss for Odinga’s party could push the opposition veteran to reclaim his position as Kenya’s opposition leader, as his allies and supporters will use it to show that his cooperation with Kenyatta is one-sided.
Babu Owino, a vocal Nairobi opposition MP, said in a Facebook post that Odinga must be careful with Kenyatta because “We can’t be duped twice.”
But the bigger risk is what the election results will do to Kenyatta’s ruling Jubilee Party, which has increasingly become a divided house as the president and his allies wrestle for control.
- Jubilee Party is scheduled to hold crucial party elections by March 2020, where Deputy President William Ruto will try to gain control of the party to anchor his 2022 presidential bid.
- The main target of the party elections will undoubtedly be Secretary-General Raphael Tuju, a crucial Kenyatta ally who also serves as a Cabinet Secretary without portfolio. One argument is that Tuju is a state officer engaged in party politics, which is illegal under Kenyan law.
- The Sunday Nation also reported that Ruto’s allies are already working on forming an alternative party should their takeover attempt be thwarted.
While Kenyatta has been quiet on the Kibra poll, except for a widely-publicised meeting where he seemingly endorsed the ruling party’s candidate, his allies within the party have broken ranks and openly campaigned for Odinga’s candidate.
- “Imran [Okoth, an ODM candidate] is the candidate supported by everyone behind the handshake between President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga,” Maina Kamanda, a ruling party legislator, said at a church service on October 6.
- Former Nairobi Women Representative Rachel Shebesh also said in late September that Deputy President Ruto and his allies “used the backdoor” and “mounted pressure on the president” to endorse the ruling party candidate.
While there have been many new and strange twists that expose the cracks within the Jubilee party, its imminent collapse is in tune with the history of Kenyan politics. Ruling parties — with the exception of independence party Kenya African National Union — tend to implode within the first few years after an election.
- When they formed an alliance before the 2013 elections, Kenyatta and Ruto outlined their plan to rule for 20 years, but Kenyatta’s ambivalence to the succession plan has set his deputy on an early campaign.
- Also at the centre of the rift between Kenyatta and his deputy is the former’s rapprochement with Odinga, which created an alternative power structure within government and rearranged the political landscape.
- “I know that I am a child of Jubilee. I am happy with my party and I am proud of my party. And I also said that I am also a Kenyan and beyond my party, I am proud of my country and the people of the Republic of Kenya,” Kenyatta said at a funeral in early October.
“By making the [Kibra] by-election a supremacy contest with ODM, Ruto is trying out a number of things, all of them risky,” civil society leader George Kegoro wrote in The Standard. “Ruto was always going to have to fight Kenyatta and Odinga openly if their cooperation continued. What is surprising is that he is doing that so early, when there is still so much time before the next election.”
- For Kenyatta, the fear is most likely that pushing Odinga back into opposition mode would complicate the next two years, as the president tries to wrap up his second term.
- For Ruto, such an outcome would mean Odinga would be without State House support, making him not just an easier target in the next elections, not just as an opponent, but also as a likely partner.
Another angle that may stymie or worsen the ruling party’s open fight is that it has made other key political allies uncomfortable. For example, the architect of the Jubilee Party’s formation, Meru Governor Kiraitu Murungi, said in late September that the two leaders wanted to dissolve the ruling party, he would go back to his party.
The Meru Governor’s position puts at risk the ruling party’s hold on the vote-rich Meru region, which tends to be more pragmatic during elections than its other Mt. Kenya neighbours.
- In an effort to allay the region’s fears, Ruto described the wrangles in the party as “small issues”.
Bottom Line: While November 7 may not spell the immediate collapse of Kenya’s ruling party or the end of Kenyatta and Odinga’s rapprochement, its results will undoubtedly force the political elite to rethink their strategies for 2020.