Aug 8, 2022 - World

Odinga vs. Ruto: The fight to be Kenya's next president

Raila Odinga holds a rally in Kisumu, Kenya. Photo: Ed Ram/Getty Images

Tuesday's election in Kenya is a clash of personalities between two familiar faces: longtime opposition stalwart Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto.

Why it matters: Kenya’s next president will have to navigate soaring food prices, ballooning debts, relations with Beijing and regional instability.

Odinga, 77, is seeking the presidency for the fifth time, but after decades in opposition — and multiple stints in prison for opposing single-party rule — he finds himself in a new position: the establishment favorite.

  • Flashback: Odinga’s 2018 handshake with outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta rocked Kenyan politics. The president’s erstwhile foe was now his ally, and his longtime deputy, Ruto, became his political nemesis.
  • The terms of the Kenyatta-Odinga pact remain unclear, but many Kenyans saw it as a case of political dynasties closing ranks. Kenyatta’s father was Kenya’s first president, while Odinga’s was the first vice president (though the former did throw the latter in jail).
  • If Odinga wins, Kenyatta (who is stepping down due to term limits, and endorsed Odinga) may chair the ruling coalition. If Ruto wins, he's pledged to form an inquiry into "cronyism and state capture," which could target Kenyatta.

Ruto’s campaign is centered around his humble origins as a “hustler” who hawked chicken on the streets to survive.

  • Ruto, 55, is more circumspect about the sources of his current wealth. Odinga’s supporters chant at rallies that Ruto is a “thief."
  • Ruto denies the corruption claims. A charismatic populist, he rails against the establishment and vows to elevate the poor.

Economic struggles are top of mind for voters at a time of soaring prices, high unemployment and ballooning debts.

  • Kenyatta borrowed heavily from China to fund infrastructure projects. Odinga wants to renegotiate some of that debt — in part so he can afford a new monthly subsidy for the poor.
  • Meanwhile, Ruto’s promise to deport Chinese workers won’t endear him to Beijing.
  • According to an Afrobarometer poll conducted last year, 87% of Kenyans think their government has borrowed too much from China.

Kenyans often vote along ethnic lines, but for the first time, none of the front-runners are from the Kikuyu ethnic group, Kenya’s largest.

  • Both front-runners picked Kikuyu running mates. Odinga’s, Martha Karua, would be Kenya’s first female vice president.
  • But with the role of ethnicity somewhat diluted, class may play a larger role. Polls show Ruto leading among poorer Kenyans, though Odinga is narrowly ahead overall.

What to watch: While Kenya is often seen as a beacon of stability in east Africa, the country saw widespread post-election violence in 2007 and again in 2017, on a smaller scale.

  • Kenya's Supreme Court annulled the 2017 results due to irregularities, but Odinga withdrew from the rerun and Kenyatta won a second term.
  • This time there won't be an incumbent clinging to power, but the loser could contest the result.
  • The race will go to a runoff within 30 days if neither candidate wins an outright majority, potentially heightening tensions further.
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