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What running mate choices tell us about Azimio and Kenya Kwanza

Kenya Kwanza's Rigathi Gachagua and Azimio's Martha Karua.

The leading presidential candidates’ choices of running mates reveal their respective understandings of what voters want. In picking Mr Rigathi Gachagua, Deputy President William Ruto doubled down on insurgent populist politics.

Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s selection of Martha Karua hearkened to institutionalist reformist politics. The choices reveal four main lines of thought in the two campaigns.

First, both coalitions believe the road to State House passes through Mt Kenya. Gachagua is a deep-pocketed grassroots mobiliser of the Hustler Nation in the region.

Furthermore, as a populist billionaire, he and Ruto are sympatico on the idea of “bottom-up economics.” Karua has reformist credentials and will likely persuade a good share of economically upwardly mobile voters (including women). Part of her brand is being independent, which will likely sway Odinga-wary voters.

Second, beyond Mt Kenya, the coalitions differ on whether this will be a turnout or a persuasion election. By doubling down on a fellow populist billionaire, Ruto placed a bet on a high Hustler Nation turnout.

By contrast, Odinga’s choice of Karua, who no one would call an Odinga clone, appears aimed at the high proportion of voters who are undecided.

Third, Karua enables Odinga to inoculate himself against the “dynasty” tag by increasing the salience of the ticket’s reformist credentials, with particular attention to good governance as a foundation of economic development.

In Gachagua, Ruto convinced anyone still in doubt that he was not even going to pretend to run on a good governance platform. He is signaling a singular focus on addressing the economic challenges faced by the Hustler Nation. Finally, both tickets understand the salience of economic stagnation in this election. Ruto’s pitch is that, despite reforms, the system is rigged and needs individuals in power who prioritise voters’ material needs.

Odinga’s pitch is that the re-orientation of the system to prioritise voters’ needs must be anchored in strong institutions. Given that both perspectives have kernels of truth, let the people decide!

The writer is an assistant professor at Georgetown University