Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto’s new party United Democratic Alliance (UDA) won its first parliamentary seat in the Thursday mini-polls but fell short of landing the knock-out blow it needed to claim a stronghold in the vote-rich central Kenya region ahead of the 2022 elections.
UDA’s candidate, Njuguna Wanjiku, beat the ruling Jubilee Party’s Kariri Njama by about 500 votes in the by-election for a new Member of Parliament for Kiambaa Constituency amid claims of rigging and deployment of State machinery.
But the ruling party warded off the breakaway outfit’s challenge in the race for Member of County Assembly for the nearby Muguga Ward in another close contest race. The two races were closely watched due to their significance in the unfolding political battles in the region between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Dr Ruto over the 2022 presidential succession. The two have fallen out, with the President leaning towards backing another candidate against his deputy.
Central Kenya, which has produced three of the country’s four presidents including the incumbent, is meanwhile widely seen as a key battleground zone in the next elections in which President Kenyatta will be ineligible to run after serving his two constitutional terms.
Dr Ruto, a front runner in the race to succeed President Kenyatta, hopes to build a strong support base in the region, buoyed by the excitement stirred by his populist Hustler Nation movement especially among the youth and resentment of his boss’s cooperation with opposition leader Raila Odinga.
Speakers at campaign rallies for the UDA candidates in the Thursday by-elections often made references to the ongoing coalition negotiations between the ruling party and Mr Odinga’s ODM to try to whip up the anti-Odinga sentiment in the region.
Victory in Kiambaa confirms Dr Ruto’s growing popularity in central Kenya, having drawn the first blood in his regional showdown with the President in May when a candidate fielded by a friendly party beat Jubilee’s in the Juja Constituency by-election.
But his campaign will be concerned that UDA couldn’t translate the huge crowds it pulled to its colourful roadshows and public rallies into a larger turnout by the youthful voters who are most excited at his populist messaging and a more decisive win for the party’s candidate.
The near dead heat race suggests that the mobilisation surge by Jubilee in the final week, including personal endorsement of its candidates by President Kenyatta in State House photo-ops, considerably shifted the ground in both Kiambaa and Muguga.
The emerging Handshake coalition being fronted by President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga for the 2022 presidential election is believed to be working on a campaign strategy that will deny Dr Ruto sweeping victory in central Kenya and boxing him in in his support base in parts of Rift Valley.