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What makes a running mate? Hard choices for Raila and Ruto

Azimio La Umoja Presidential candate Raila Odinga (left) with NARC Kenya leader Martha Karua at Nairobi Serena Hotel on March 23, 2022 [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Had politics been as easy as ABC, Azimio leader Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto – frontrunners in this year’s presidential election – would have already introduced their running mates to the world and declared theirs the winning ticket.

But politics is hardly as easy and so the two presidential contenders will be scratching their heads much longer than they would wish, agonising over who to choose as their deputy presidential candidate.

The only easy bit, perhaps, is the fact that both know the kind of person that would make an ideal running mate. However, choosing a ‘president-in-waiting’, one who can take over the reins of power should need arise before the next election, is not as straightforward as pointing at one of many qualified candidates.

The concept of a running mate is relatively new in Kenya and was only introduced formally in the 2010 Constitution with DP Ruto as the first to hold that office. However, the absence of a legal provision in the previous Constitution did not stop presidential aspirants from picking ‘running mates’.

In 2007 for instance, Mr Odinga picked Mr Musalia Mudavadi, while Mr Kalonzo Musyoka settled for Prof Julia Ojiambo. At the time, it was assumed that the then President Mwai Kibaki would retain his Vice President, Mr Moody Awori. But Mr Awori automatically lost the seat when he lost the race for the Funyula parliamentary seat. At the time, one had to be an elected legislator to hold the office of VP. This is no longer the case.

Both Mr Odinga’s and Mr Musyoka’s choices then, and running mate choices that have followed since, have, arguably, been informed by the need to balance the presidential ticket. Balancing, essentially, implies that a presidential running mate plays a complementary role to the presidential candidate, which could decide the election. For instance, a running mate can be younger or older than the presidential candidate, of a different gender, from a different region or possesses qualities that his boss may lack.

Age and gender matter in a democracy, but the obvious consideration in the case of Kenya has always been achieving a regional balance. The chosen one also comes with the necessary number of votes needed to win the election.

In the case of Kenya’s top two presidential contenders, an ideal running mate must guarantee either Dr Ruto or Mr Odinga that they can marshal the support needed to deliver the presidency. Such a person should ideally command a political base of his or her own, and their other qualities should have the power to tilt the scales in favour of their ticket. “It will help if one commands a regional base,” says historian Macharia Munene. “One must look at how many votes the running mate can bring.”

According to Mr Tom Mboya, a governance consultant, Kenyans traditionally mobilise along ethnic lines.

“Regional and ethnic balance is a Constitutional tenet, and hence any presidential aspirant must strive to achieve it, which means that a presidential candidate will not come from the same community as their running mate,” he said.

All attention is currently fixed on the Mt Kenya region, which, by virtue of its numerical strength, is the most attractive spot to scout for a running mate. But the region presents uncertainties to those hoping to reap from its huge voting basket.

As it currently stands, no individual has emerged as President Uhuru Kenyatta’s successor from the region. As such, no one politician from the region can claim to command the region’s vote. In the absence of such a “unifier”, politicians from other regions are finding their names being mentioned in the running mate conversation.

Of all the persons touted to be the perfect running mate for either Dr Ruto or Mr Odinga, Mr Musyoka has proven his mettle in as far as securing regional numbers go. His support of Mr Odinga saw the ODM leader’s approval in the Ukambani region jump from 1.5 per cent in 2007 to more than 85 per cent in 2013.

Mr Odinga’s performance in Ukambani in 2017 was equally stellar, undoubtedly as a result of Mr Musyoka’s support, who had secured 87 per cent of the Ukambani vote in 2007. And it is because of this fact that allies of the Wiper leader want him named Mr Odinga’s running mate.

“For Kalonzo to forfeit the presidency for the third time, it must count for something,” said Makueni Senator Mutula Kilonzo recently. He insisted that Mr Musyoka ought to be picked to deputise Mr Odinga in the Azimio la Umoja ticket.

But the Wiper Leader has been criticised for going quiet since endorsing Mr Odinga’s bid, introducing another role a running mate must play; mobilising voters.

“If you look at it purely politically then, yes, mobilising is part of the equation. But one cannot look purely at the political aspect. There are other things to consider, such as competence and temperament,” Mr Mboya said.

“It will be helpful if one can have an energetic running mate who can mobilise people, but not to the extent of overshadowing the presidential candidate,” Prof Munene added.

With Mr Mudavadi’s support in 2007, Mr Odinga locked out President Kibaki from Western by securing 69 of the vote against Mr Kibaki’s 30 per cent.

When both Mr Odinga and Mr Mudavadi vied for the presidency in 2013, Mr Odinga bagged 62 per cent of the vote in Western, while the ANC leader, who got 29.7 per cent in his own backyard.

However, Mr Odinga’s performance in Western improved in subsequent election, when he got 82 per cent of the vote in Western against Mr Kenyatta’s 16 per cent. Mr Mudavadi was not Raila’s running mate at the time but he had thrown his weight behind Mr Odinga.

Given Mr Mudavadi’s influence in Western, Kakamega Senator Cleophas Malala led the push to have him named as Kenya Kwanza Alliance’s running mate.

“If UDA (United Democratic Alliance) provides the presidential flagbearer, ANC (Amani National Congress) must provide the running mate,” Mr Malala said recently.

Kenya Kwanza Alliance leaders Deputy President William Ruto and ANC Party leader Musalia Mudavadi in dialogue during the Kenya Kwanza Alliance political rally at Ilgn'arua in Baringo south on February 13, 2022. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

The sway Mr Musyoka and Mr Mudavadi hold in their backyards now may be debatable. What is not, however, is the reason why Mr Odinga picked them to deputise him at different times, and it has a lot to do with long-term governance considerations. The two are presidential material in their own right. Over the years, the two have cultivated the persona of leaders playing at the national league. The fact that they are both former vice presidents and have held Cabinet portfolios cements their national stature.

Experience at the national level would give any presidential aspirant the assurance that their running mate would be ready for the job when called upon. Not many of the other contenders for the seat have this advantage. Some are young politically and lack the heft that comes with holding senior government and political positions.

“In the event that the worst should happen, you need someone who will inspire confidence amongst Kenyans that they will be able to assume office,” Mr Mboya said.

He, however, also argued that inexperience in national politics may not be a deal-breaker.

“You can have a running mate who is not a politician, but who possesses experience in other areas, such as in the business and such experience could be a game-changer.”

The soured relationship between President Kenyatta and Dr Ruto also gives presidential aspirants a lot to think about. The design of Kenya’s presidential system assigns no outright role to the deputy president. The DP’s first job, according to the Constitution, is to serve as the president’s principal assistant.

“The Deputy President shall perform the functions conferred by this Constitution and any other functions of the President as the President may assign,” says Article 147 (2) of the Constitution of Kenya, 2010. 

The other function, acting as President, to some extent, is pegged on the Head of State’s wishes.

No presidential aspirant would fancy having a relationship that mirrors that of President Kenyatta and his DP have had in their second term. The DP is on record admitting as much, saying he would not treat his deputy as he was treated.

“The current administration will be a lesson for future contenders in terms of the selection process. They will have to look beyond who is supporting them now and imagine the worst-case scenario. So you want someone who shares your vision and with whom you will be able to work despite challenges,” Mr Mboya said.

The perfect running mate, therefore, would be someone whose future loyalty is largely guaranteed; someone who would obey the constitutional dictates of serving as the president’s assistant and not establish an alternative centre of power; someone who would never challenge the boss, at least not in public.

“The deputy president is only there to do the president’s bidding. But, above all, I believe compatibility is the most important bit. You need someone you trust and who you can work with,” Prof Munene said.

The question now is; who fits the bill for the various top contenders?