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Tight presidential race shaped by tropes rather than realities

Multi-millionaire Deputy President frames the 9 August vote as fight between his 'hustler' army and veteran oligarchs

Many in Nairobi's commentariat forecast the presidential election on 9 August will be the closest ever – which is almost certain to trigger appeals and street demonstrations by the losing side.

Some, such as former anti-corruption tsar John Githongo, argue it is Kenya's first election about nothing – that is there no marked differences in the policies of the two front-running candidates, Deputy Prime Minister William Ruto and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

Others say it is the first election since independence in 1963 in which the power of the Kenyatta dynasty – whose land holdings and international financial assets have made it the richest family in the country – will face an existential challenge, this time from an angry 'hustler', as Ruto styles himself.

That wasn't the initial plan. After the disputed 2017 elections, President Uhuru Kenyatta was meant to hand over to his deputy Ruto this year, giving him a full-hearted endorsement en route. But the rapprochement between Kenyatta and Odinga has increasingly sidelined Ruto in the past three years.

That has turned the election into an elaborate revenge drama. Kenyatta and Odinga now say that Ruto, with whom they have both worked closely in the past, is unfit to be president. Ruto accuses Odinga and Kenyatta of being privileged oligarchs who are denying a younger generation of Kenyans their place in the sun.

Those were just the starting points. Since then the rhetoric has become increasingly ugly, veering into hate speech on social media and local radio. Kenyatta now refuses to shake Ruto's hand in public.

So bitter have been the arguments between the two camps that the presidential debate on 25 July was boycotted by Odinga.

Odinga's team said that he would not share a stage with 'a man who has no regard for ethics, public morals, or shame'.

There is no doubting the animus between Odinga and Ruto. But Odinga's boycott may owe more to the reality that his strength as a campaigner does not lie in public debate – especially against the well-rehearsed and heavily prepped workaholic Ruto.

Odinga might also claim a precedent. In 2017, when Kenyatta was seeking re-election, he turned down an invitation to debate Odinga, then the challenger, saying he had no reason to attend as his track record spoke for itself.

So, on 27 July Ruto went ahead with his own 90-minute dialogue with moderators, across from Odinga's empty chair. But Ruto's characteristically combative performance is unlikely to have shifted the minds of many floating voters (AC Vol 58 No 21, Crisis? What crisis?). It included a particularly testy exchange with moderator Yvonne Okwara over his description of the Supreme Court judges as wakora ('conmen') after they struck down the August 2017 poll which had re-elected him and President Kenyatta.

Ruto again disowned his role in the government, claiming that its 'Big Four' infrastructure agenda was derailed by Kenyatta's 'handshake' with Odinga. He repeated his argument that Kenya didn't need to renegotiate its debt, and promised to rein in borrowing and increase revenue collection. Details are scarce on the latter and Ruto plans a giveaway to small businesses worth over $1 billion.

Ruto's team dismissed Odinga's boycott: 'He (Odinga) has feared attending the debate, because they have no agenda; they have no plan.'

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