Political gymnastics: Kiraitu kept Ruto camp waiting until last-minute jump to Azimio

ODM leader Raila Odinga with Meru Governor Kiraitu Murungi in Meru during a past event. [George Kaimenyi, Standard]

Meru Governor Kiraitu Murungi’s decision to join Azimio la Umoja is a big blow to Deputy President William Ruto’s camp that had been trying to win him over.

Sources in Dr Ruto’s camp say they considered Mr Murungi a prime catch who would have swayed the Mt Kenya East political tide further into their side.

Even Dr Ruto appeared to express the same sentiments at a rally in Nkubu on Saturday when he said United Democratic Alliance (UDA) still respected Mt Kenya’s longest-serving elected leader, despite his decision.

“Kiraitu Murungi is still our friend,” Dr Ruto said at the home turf of the Meru governor, asking the crowds: “What message do you have for him?”

But others like Meru Senator Mithika Linturi were clearly not happy with Mr Murungi.

According to reliable sources in UDA, Mr Linturi had been tasked with courting the Meru governor to the party’s camp.

While Dr Ruto has been bashing small parties formed by his allies in the Mt Kenya region, such as Mr Moses Kuria’s Chama Cha Kazi and Mr Mwangi Kiunjuri’s The Service Party of Kenya, Mr Linturi said UDA was willing to accommodate Mr Murungi with whatever demands he came with.

“We had bent the rules and allowed the veteran politician to run on his Devolution Empowerment Party (DEP) as a UDA affiliate and even committed not to field a candidate against him. But he is taking forever to make up his mind,” Mr Linturi said.

Currently, the East heavily leans on UDA’s side and the West continues to unravel with major gains by Azimio in the last half-year.

But even as the UDA negotiated with Mr Murungi, who is said to have assured them that he was on their side, sources close to him say he was also on parallel discussions with the Azimio team.

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s close confidants consider Mr Murungi a valuble voice in Mt Kenya East region given his experience in politics.

Murungi also remains a key voice within the Mt Kenya Foundation which has thrown its weight behind Azimio.

His moving to Azimio was however influenced by Mr Titus Ibui, a businessman and former head of the civil service Mr Francis Muthaura.

Former head of the civil service Francis Muthaura. [David Njaaga, Standard]

Azimio, sources claim had to meet certain conditions that Mr Murungi had wanted to be fulfilled.

“They had first through the Jubilee Party allowed him to use the symbols and colours of his former Alliance Party of Kenya (APK),” said Igembe Central Politician and political commentator Mr James Mithika.

A top long-serving Jubilee official said Mr Murungi had also won another major giveaway by Azimio - the commitment that Agriculture Minister Peter Munya would not be in the Meru gubernatorial race.

Mr Murungi praised Mr Munya when he failed to resign by the legal deadline for public servants intending to vie admitting that he had been his most formidable opponent.

 When UDA started hinting that it would eventually field Mr Linturi if Kiraitu couldn’t make up his mind on whether to join the party or not, Mr Kiraitu was two weeks to the March 15 National Delegates Conference (NDC) of his DEP which was supposed to announce the side they would support in the Agust polls.

Meru Deputy Governor Titus Ntuciu, reacting to the news that Linturi may vie against Murungi said they would not be held at ransom by a side that has been courting them for long.

A few days later, Mr Murungi proclaimed he was a political veteran who could not make the mistake of blindly plunging himself into the opposition.

“Mzee is ever careful and a keen political observer. I think he finally saw the futility of supporting a losing UDA ticket,” said Mr Linford Mutembei, chairman of the Azimio allied Mt Kenya Youth Caucus.

Murungi’s DEP appears to have attracted few potential MPs in Meru.

On the other hand, UDA has at least seven Meru MPs including nominated legislator Mr Halima Mucheke.

But a reliable senior Meru politician said they expect at least three Meru MPs to return to the Jubilee fold in the next two weeks.