As President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto presided last week at State House over the unveiling of a pact that will lead to the Jubilee coalition officially transforming into political party, the eye was not just on a united vehicle for the president’s 2017 re-election bid, but the longer-term effort to swing his ethnic voting bloc behind Mr Ruto’s 2022 presidential candidacy.
The launch of the Jubilee Party, scheduled for next March, is supposed to be followed by formal dissolution of the individual parties within the coalition, notably President Kenyatta’s The National Alliance (TNA) and Mr Ruto’s United Republican Party (URP).
Other smaller parties in the coalition, including Tourism Minister Najib Balala’s Republican Congress Party, are also expected to disband, as are parties allied to Jubilee but not formally in the coalition, such as Water Minister Eugene Wamalwa’s New Ford Kenya, Meru Senator Kiraitu Murungi’s Alliance Party of Kenya and Devolution Minister Mwangi Kiunjuri’s Grand National Union.
The merger is being sold as the formation of a united national party that will not be riven by the disputes that often rock the ethnic alliances that predominate in Kenya.
Nevertheless the real rationale is to manage in good time Jubilee’s biggest nightmare: A scenario where President Kenyatta’s Kikuyu bloc refuses to reciprocate and throw its sizeable votes behind Mr Ruto when the time comes.
Mr Ruto pulled off a major feat in getting his Kalenjin constituency to vote almost to a man for President Kenyatta in 2013.
This not only united the main protagonists in the usual election cycle ethnic violence, but also cemented the Kikuyu-Kalenjin hegemony in Kenyan leadership because of the understanding that Mr Kenyatta would serve two terms then back Mr Ruto’s bid for the presidency.
Mr Ruto indeed delivered on the first term as President Kenyatta’s running mate and has publicly committed himself to the same arrangement in 2017 before stepping up to the plate five years later.
He has had to overcome muted complaints from his own voting bloc that the Kalenjin are getting a raw deal in the coalition.
However, despite President Kenyatta publicly indicating that he will keep his side of the bargain come 2022, there are justifiable fears that even his substantial prestige may not be enough to rally his people behind Mr Ruto.
The Kikuyu, sceptics point out, have always voted for one of their own at every presidential election since the return of multiparty politics in 1992, even as their candidates have benefitted from support outside their ethnic bastion.
Also germane is the fact that despite the Kenyatta-Ruto alliance being touted as a sign of reconciliation between the two ethnic communities that have virtually gone to war at almost every election since 1992, culminating in the 2007-2008 post-election violence that nearly tore Kenya apart, the wounds have not healed.
Suspicion and bitterness remain, with neither group fully trusting the other. Among the Kikuyu who have borne the brunt of killings and forced evictions in the Rift Valley, anger and bitterness — temporarily assuaged by the pact propelled President Kenyatta to State House still run deep.
If Mr Ruto is still seen as the leader of the Kalenjin movement that kicked hundreds of thousands of their kin out of the Rift Valley in the post-election violence, then not even his alliance with President Kenyatta will guarantee him the Kikuyu vote.
Senior Kikuyu politicians who make up a powerful inner-core in President Kenyatta’s court, publicly proclaim support for the power-transfer pact, but privately concede than in central Kenya, Mr Ruto would be a hardsell.
Some are quietly examining a scenario where come 2022, President Kenyatta’s successor would be fronted from within the community.
According to well-placed sources, the president has dismissed such discussion out of hand and made it clear to confidants that he will not renege on his commitment to Mr Ruto.
He is, however, aware of the threat such feelings pose, and hence his strong support for the merger of TNA and URP.
The basic plan is that come the 2022 elections, it will be a formality for Mr Ruto to get the Jubilee Party presidential nomination. With no strong Kikuyu party to counter him with a formidable candidate of its own, the community vote will be largely locked-in for Mr Ruto.
This all assumes, however, that the Kenyatta-Ruto ticket retains power in 2017.
In that regard, Jubilee as a united national party rather than a loose alliance of ethnic formations should offer it an advantage against the threat posed by the opposition Cord Alliance headed by Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement and his partners — Kalonzo Musyoka of Wiper Democratic Party and Moses Wetangula of Ford Kenya.
While there are no questions on the Jubilee ticket at the next elections, Cord is still witnessing some wrangling within its ethnic factions. Mr Odinga is the presumed candidate, but his 2013 running mate Mr Musyoka has declared his intention to run, as has Wetangula. All three need to lock-in their ethnic bastions, the Luo, Kamba and Luhya, respectively, by projecting themselves as potential residents of State House.
Within Jubilee, in the meantime, the union is not a done deal yet. There is still resistance within some of the constituent parties, especially with individual politicians unsure of where they will fit within the bigger outfit.
However, the sway President Kenyatta and his deputy have over their core constituencies should see Jubilee emerge as powerful machine so that any holdouts in the party bastions risk being swept aside come the 2017 General Election.
This scenario could however come undone if enough of the smaller regional parties, as well as TNA and URP bosses at the constituency and county levels, refuse to surrender their positions and create sizeable splinters to upset the game plan.
The State House parley was convened after President Kenyatta and Mr Ruto were persuaded that the resistance evident in the run-up to the formal announcement had been adequately dealt with.