Raila or Ruto? Kenya's next President inherits a failing economy, ballooning debt and corruption

By today, the results of the presidential race between Kenya Kwanza’s William Ruto and Azimio’s Raila Odinga is expected to have become clearer after early returns showed a cliffhanger challenge between the two leading contenders for State House.

In an election that posted a low turnout, especially among young voters, whoever wins the election faces a herculean task given the huge in-tray that awaits them.

It does not help matters that both leading candidates have given specific timelines within which they promise to implement some of the key pledges in their manifestos. 

For instance, the DP has promised to bring down the cost of living within the first 100 days of taking over office if he is declared the winner of last Tuesday’s presidential election.

He has dismissed the subsidy announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta, terming it a short-term measure that was meant to hoodwink voters to cast their ballots in support of Raila, who had the incumbent’s backing.

In Ruto’s view, it is wrong for the government to blame the Russian invasion of Ukraine for the rise in food prices, instead holding that the collapse of the Big Four Agenda following the handshake deal between Uhuru and Raila is the genesis of the suffering Kenyans are going through.

 “Don’t take us for fools. You hindered the implementation of the Big 4 agenda, the issue of farming, you removed the fertiliser subsidy. You can’t come last minute to say you have reduced maize flour prices for a few weeks, then after the polls, the prices shoot to Sh 300,” Ruto told Raila in reaction to the ODM leader’s revelation that he is the one who intervened to have the unga subsidy put in place.

“I talked to Uhuru and told him to reduce the unga prices and you saw on Monday he reduced the prices. From today unga is Sh100 and are you not happy? When I get into government we will reduce the high cost of living to alleviate the suffering of Kenyans,” Raila said during a campaign tour of Nakuru last month. 

Ruto unveiled a seven-point manifesto detailing his plans to transform Kenya with the key focus being on agriculture, micro, small and medium enterprises, housing and settlement, healthcare, digital superhighway, creative economy, service economy and climate change, stating that if he wins, his administration will spend Sh1 trillion in the first term to realise his agenda. 

“We have chosen these sectors guided by six parameters including the ability to bring down the cost of living, eradicate hunger, create jobs and increase our tax base,” he said during the launch of the Kenya Kwanza manifesto. 

On his part, Raila came up with a 10-point agenda covering various areas ranging from improving the economy to pave way for employment and wealth creation,  provision of a Sh6,000 monthly subsidy to two million households living below the poverty line, improving agriculture and the blue economy, provision of universal healthcare to availing clean water to every household. 

But analysts say that while both Ruto and Raila have promised to tackle ballooning debt, runaway corruption and the burden of youth unemployment, the real task ahead will not be a walk in the park especially given the ambitious timeframes they have set for themselves.

The two candidates offered contrasting ways on how to address the debt burden. On one hand, Raila favours continued borrowing for infrastructure development as well as debt restructuring with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) while, on the other, Ruto is confident Kenya can pay her debts by reducing expenditure and increasing the tax base. 

Raila will be confronted by reduced headroom as he will only be able to borrow Sh1.4 trillion before hitting the new ceiling of Sh10 trillion set by Parliament before it adjourned for the elections. 

Ruto’s plan to fund debt repayment from domestic sources and increase the tax base will not be easy given that, if he wins, he will inherit an economy that is in ICU having contracted in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis, climate change and the crisis in Ukraine. 

“The next president will inherit an economy on life support. To make matters worse, the fuel subsidy will expire by September while the unga one had a window of four weeks. It will be critical for whoever wins to level up with the public and manage expectations,” International Crisis Group Programme Director for Africa Muriithi Mutiga avers. 

According to Mutiga, Ruto faces an even more difficult job than Raila because he gave grand promises on the campaign trail, setting high expectations among his supporters that he will lift them from the bottom of the pyramid.

On his part, History professor Macharia Munene says the top priority of the next president will be to reach out to the losers and avoid chest-thumping as a way of reducing tension.

But all said and done, addressing the elephant in the room - endemic corruption - holds key to any agenda the next president will seek to prioritise.