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Raila Odinga's political future up in the air after a fifth election defeat

Azimio leader Raila Odinga. [Kelly Ayodi, Standard]

It is a humbling and deeply reflective season for ODM party leader Raila Odinga and the Azimio la Umoja One Kenya coalition following the Supreme Court’s affirmation of William Ruto as the duly elected fifth president. Raila’s fifth failed shot at the presidency leaves even the most fervent of his followers at a crossroads. They are lost for political direction and activity. 

 Three questions stand out. What next for one of Kenya’s most colourful and influential politicians ever? Where next for his fervent home base supporters who have breezily rallied around the Odinga family for close to eight decades? And what next for the Opposition and for ODM and Azimio la Umoja One Kenya? 

 The defeat in the presidential poll was bad enough, as things stood. Yet, the sense of loss has been intensified by the taking of the positions of Speaker and Deputy Speaker in both the National Assembly and the Senate by Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza Alliance.

Nothing demonstrates the miasma around Mr Odinga than the merry-go-round that was Wiper Party leader Kalonzo Musyoka’s on-again and off-again dalliance with election of Speaker of the two chambers. 

 Initially primed to be Chief Cabinet Minister had Azimio won the presidential race, Kalonzo has run from pillar to post, grappling with what next, after the Azimio presidential debacle. He picked up application forms for election as Speaker to both houses. However, he withdrew from both races, citing ‘corruption and bribery’ in the process. More rational, however, is that he foresaw defeat, following Ruto’s raiding of independents and Azimio MPs to vote for Kenya Kwanza candidates for the four positions – two each in the Senate and in the National Assembly. Azimio’s candidates who got to the wire were roundly chastened at the poll. Former Bungoma Senator Moses Wetang’ula and for Kilifi Governor Amason Kingi were elected Speakers of the National Assembly and the Senate, respectively. They are deputised by Gladys Boss Shollei and Murungi Kathuri. 

 While he has remained guarded about these happenings, that Raila is smarting under the pain of defeat can be seen through the pronouncements and actions of his proxies. Azimio senators walked out of the chamber prior to the taking of the vote for the Speaker. In the National Assembly, Ruaraka MP TJ Kajwang’ attempted to abort Wetang’ula’s candidature to no avail. Afterwards, Azimio’s presidential running mate, Martha Karua, accused Ruto of ‘taking the country back to the Kanu one party state days’ by raiding Azimio ranks. 

 That there is disarray and apprehension in the camp is not in doubt. What is not clear is where this leaves Raila, and just how much will be left of the Opposition, and how strongly it will hold. Raila remains the face of the Opposition. Yet, he must be only acutely aware that part of the attraction of Azimio during the campaign was the widespread belief that they would win the election. Opinion polls by Tifa and Infotrack consistently placed Raila ahead of Ruto, in the last three months to the polls. The message was touted that if you did not come along with Azimio, you would be in the Opposition after 9 August. 

Desire to be near power

 It is perhaps the desire to be near power that led those now defecting to Kenya Kwanza to rally around Raila and Azimio. Karua’s concerns about a diminishing Azimio are not idle. Starting with the United Democratic Movement (UDM), others have decamped to join Ruto. Former Kisii Governor, James Ongwae and a delegation of losing politicians from Kisii and Nyamira counties are the latest. Others have been losing candidates from Luo Nyanza, led by gubernatorial candidates for Siaya and Kisumu counties, Nicholas Gumbo and Jack Ranguma. 

Azimio leader Raila Odinga.  [Samson Wire, Standard]

These people bring an optical advantage. Azimio is seen as a dwindling and possibly collapsing political entity. Former Makueni Governor, Kivutha Kibwana also decamped, as did Ugenya MP David Ochieng. Cotu Secretary General, Francis Atwoli, a vocal Raila ally, has eaten humble pie and publicly recognised Ruto, despite his previous history of declamatory proclamations against him. Believable sources indicate that there are many more migrations on the cards in the coming days, especially after Ruto is formally inaugurated.

 The next line of onslaught is in the Council of Governors, where Kenya Kwanza will seek to gain control, using the same strategic approach as was used in the Senate and the National Assembly. Moreover, Kenya Kwanza is not yet done with Azimio and Raila in Parliament. They are seeking to control all the major committees in the two houses, such as the Public Accounts Committee, the Public Investments Committee, as well as the Justice and Legal Affairs Committee. 

 Those defecting to Kenya Kwanza in Parliament are doing so in exchange for places on House committees and the personal benefits that come with that. The situation is dire to the extent that some ODM and Jubilee members are reported to be negotiating with their Kenya Kwanza colleagues for committee placement. 

 All these developments leave Raila in a fragile place, especially as it is expected that his political partner-in-chief, President Uhuru Kenyatta, will soon get weary of political struggles in his retirement season and move on. Raila, not one to be easily written off in the past, however, could still get back to the drawing board and bounce back. Yet, he must first eschew the pain of defeat and gather himself up for a fresh effort to command his troops. And following five seasons of lost presidential polls, the troops will need more than ordinary pepping up. 

Own designs and devices

 Ironically, the staunchest of his supporters have already been elected to various offices across the country. It should not surprise that many go on to settle down in their jobs and forget about the one man whose beck and call has easily placed them where they are. They could go on with their political life, leaving Raila to his own designs and devices. The designs and devices will in turn depend on whether he wants to continue in the Opposition  for another five years, and go on to have a sixth go at the presidency in 2027.

 If he should elect that route, he will do so knowing just how difficult it can be to unseat an incumbent. He will also want to remember that Ruto and Kenya Kwanza beat him to the prize in spite of all the support he had from President Uhuru Kenyatta and an elaborate State machinery. It would seem that Ruto will be harder to beat in 2027, by Raila who would then be 82 years old, against Ruto’s 62. After the just concluded elections, Raila will require a lot of oomph to bounce back, even as an Opposition voice. 

 Meanwhile, younger politicians in his Nyanza home base will be eagerly eyeing the position he has occupied in their political hearts and minds. They may want to begin trying their footprints where Raila has previously stepped. Yet they must do so with a lot of caution. To appear to be fishing from his troubled political waters could prove costly. For, many empathise with Raila. While the trademark street protests that have historically marked each election defeat have been absent this time, there are very many who are hurting with Raila. They will not take kindly to anyone who seems to want to dance on his political grave, especially when it is not yet clear whether there is a grave to dance on as yet. 

 On a wider national scale, there is room for a new strong Opposition voice, regardless of whether Raila bounces back or not. Natural attrition has a way of slowing down even the most agile political operative. The ended election campaigns showed a significantly slowed down Raila Odinga. New voices have their chance. They will do well, however, if they are embodied in regular measured, stately, issue-based approaches. Hecklers and idle shouting individuals who play to the gallery are unlikely to fit in Raila’s shoes, regardless of what he decides to do with himself. One thing is not in doubt though, 2027 will require fresh talent to run against Ruto, who may very well be tucking away his second term in a safe place.