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Make or break for Uhuru, Ruto as voters head to polls in Kiambaa

IEBC clerks prepare paperwork at Karuri High School ahead of the Kiambaa parliamentary elections. [George Njunge, Standard]

Today, it is a do or die political duel for President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto as residents of Kiambaa constituency and Muguga ward hit the ballot box in by-elections that could direct Mount Kenya politics ahead of next year's elections.

The high states mini-polls are beyond the local candidates, in what has been billed as a battle for supremacy between Uhuru and Ruto, once strong political buddies, turned rivals amid the 2022 succession politics.

It is no wonder that Kiambaa and Muguga by-elections have gone beyond Kiambu County and stirred eyebrows nationally.

President Kenyatta is backing his Jubilee Party candidate for Kiambaa Kariri Njama, who is running against Ruto allied United Democratic Alliance (UDA) candidate John Njuguna Wanjiku. The results will jolt politics in Mt Kenya and beyond.

In Muguga ward, Jubilee’s Githinji Mung’ara will battle it out with UDA’s Kamau Thumbi.

Political pundits have opined that if UDA wins the battle it will be a waterloo case for President Kenyatta in the quest to control the vote-rich Mt Kenya politics.

“If UDA wins, the goose is cooked for any other force that wants to face Ruto in Mt Kenya because the message will be that the DP has won two seats in Kiambu,” said political analyst Prof Peter Kagwanja.

President Kenyatta is keen to control his succession in the 2022 presidential election and the perception that he controls the the four million voters who vote homogeneously in his political bedrock, will give him an upper hand on the political bargaining table.

Uhuru has been wounded politically from the loss in Juja constituency, Kiambu County and Rurii Ward in Nyandarua and he needs a victory as a political statement that he still has clout in his turf.

In Juja, George Koimburi of Gatundu South MP Moses Kuria's PEP party won against Susan waititu of Jubilee, while Francis Muraya of UDA won Rurii ward against the ruling party's Peter Thinji.

If Uhuru, who hosted Njama at State House last week loses Kiambaa, it will be the second by-election loss in Kiambu and it will politically weaken him.

For UDA and Ruto's allies, a second win in Kiambu, will allow them to push back against Jubilee especially as it increasingly becomes clear that President Kenyatta will not back his deputy in 2022.

All parties staking a claim to 2022, view Mt Kenya as pivotal to shaping the race for State House.

Kagwanja argued that President Kenyatta choosing a hands off approach to the two by-elections could have given Ruto allied teams space to breath and made the contest tougher.

“It is understandable that Uhuru does not want to look like he has gone local. But given the magnitude of the impact that will come from the outcome, I would have advised the president to go out and win the seat himself because he will need that power to shape the transition,” he said.

The president's hands off approach, has been a blessing in disguise for Ruto, who is looking to grow the political firepower to drive his bid for president in 2022.

Political parties have used the by-elections as a key activity of building their political parties and to test new outfits that are coming up and the DP has been strategically working to wrest the political ground from Uhuru.

Prof Kagwanja said UDA was keen to prove its mettle in the mountain.

“The loss in Juja was a wake up call for Jubilee elite, so they have gone all out to ensure Kiambaa does not go to UDA,” he said.

By capitalising on the discontent and knocking out the candidates of the ruling party, the DP and his allies hope to set the cascade effect underway that could sweep away the 'system' in 2022.

Ruto, Kagwanja said, wants to prove that he is a factor in Mt Kenya by himself without Uhuru, which is why he thinks is the reason why the president should have hit the ground.

“The DP is not proving that he is in Mt Kenya as a partner but as a competitor and the forceful heir to President Kenyatta. I think the president should have been out there,” he said.

Political observers also say a win for UDA would prove that emerging parties were chipping away at the choke hold Jubilee has on the region.

During the campaigns, Kiambu Governor James Nyoro told residents of Gachie and Karura that a victory for Njama will signify that President Kenyatta still commands respect and political influence in the region and beyond.

“Voting for Jubilee will mean acknowledging the good work President Kenyatta has done for Kiambu and the country at large. We need to support the choice of our president. Njama’s win will be a win for our president,” said the governor.

Viewed as a battle royale that could seal the fate of the two top country's leaders, every camp is claiming victory and vowing to teach the other a lesson. While UDA would use Kiambaa with 94,000 registered voters as a launch pad for national politics, Jubilee must fight to retain its turf being Uhuru's backyard.

Nyeri Town MP Wambugu Ngunjiri and Kieni's Kanini Kega have exuded confidence that they will win the seat and rubber stamp Jubilee's strength in the region.

"We will win the seat and reinforce the fact that Uhuru's party still calls the shots," said Ngunjiri. His counterpart Kega said: "Our competitors will be surprised."

But MPs allied to Ruto are bullish and insist that the by-elections will determine which party is more popular in Mt Kenya. Among leaders who have camped in the region to campaign for Njuguna and Thumbi are Mathira MP Rigathi Gachagua, Kimani Ichung’wah (Kikuyu), Ndindi Nyoro (Kiharu), Alice Wahome (Kandara), Murang’a Senator Irungu Kang’ata, Nominated Senator Millicent Omanga and former Starehe MP Margaret Wanjiru.

Ichung’wah said UDA is in the race to win. “These by-elections come at a time when the supremacy battle between us in UDA and Jubilee is simmering. Whoever wins is the lion of the mountain.”

And former Nairobi governor Mike Sonko said the by-elections are crucial for Mt Kenya politics. "From my little political experience, believe you me this Kiambaa by-election is like a presidential election. The outcome might determine the political trajectory of the mountain," said Sonko in a tweet.

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