William Ruto should be entering 2020 on a high.
He sits comfortably on his perch as Deputy President and, for now, faces no serious challenge for the ruling Jubilee Party nomination for the 2022 presidential elections.
He also apparently commands the support of the majority of Jubilee Party legislators in both the National Assembly and Senate, and his slate appears set to sweep the board if party elections are held in the next few months as scheduled.
What should have been his biggest threat, the report of the Building Bridges Initiative championed by President Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga, also played neatly into his hands.
The report, released in late November, made only tepid recommendations on the make-up of the national executive structure rather than the radical changes proposed by Mr Odinga.
This left Mr Ruto quite happy with the document as presented, and a dissatisfied Mr Odinga pushing for a review.
The DP is also the only serious declared contender for the presidency, meaning that any opinion poll at this stage would place him head and shoulders above any other potential candidates.
However, ”things on the ground are different” as Mr Ruto’s supporters like saying.
While Mr Ruto can be pretty confident that his support base remains solid, he is up against a President who commands an awesome State machinery with the power to make life quite difficult for anyone who falls in the wrong side.
Mr Ruto has openly defied President Kenyatta’s edict against premature electioneering, which diverts attention from Jubilee development programmes.
He is taking his Tangatanga campaign tours to political rallies across the country under the guise of inspecting or launching development projects.
He is liberally dishing out vast amounts of money at fundraisers for schools, churches and other social development projects, raising eyebrows as to the source of cash.
These questions don’t worry Mr Ruto, who displays a single-minded resolve to solidify his support base in preparation for the 2020 polls.
He should be concerned, however, that a major split in Jubilee could seriously compromise his front-runner status.
President Kenyatta and running-mate Ruto rode to power on the solid support of two of the most populous communities in Kenya.
They only needed to gain pockets of support among a few other groupings to pip the opposition alliance headed by Mr Odinga in both 2013 and 2017.
If the famous bromance cools and Uhuru-Ruto go their separate ways, it would not only be a falling out between individuals, but a rupture between the two main population groups that are the bedrock of Jubilee.
Mr Ruto’s support among his Kalenjin people remains absolutely solid and unchallenged, but a rift in Jubilee would mean he can no longer count on the automatic support of Mr Kenyatta’s much more populous Kikuyu vote.
He does appear to have stolen the support of the Kikuyu majority but, in the absence of any serious poll, this could be an erroneous reading because it is based solely on a counting of MPs who have trooped to his side, many for mercantile reasons.
Mr Ruto is sharp enough to be extremely cautious about taking the word of MPs and influence peddlers who constantly assure him they have secured nearly 100 per cent of the Kikuyu vote for him.
The Kikuyu community, in any case, is in a state of flux. The impending exit of President Kenyatta leaves a large vacuum in the community leadership that no one has yet emerged to fill.
Another factor that Mr Ruto has to take into account is that since the return of the multiparty system in 1992, the Kikuyu have never voted in any significant number for a presidential candidate from outside the community.
In 1992, the Mt Kenya vote was split between Mwai Kibaki and Ken Matiba. In 1997, the latter did not vie, and his supporters, almost to a man, trooped across to his rival Kibaki.
In 2002, the vote was shared between Mr Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta, who sat out the next election in 2007 and swung his entire vote to the President.
At the next two elections in 2013 and 2017, the Mt Kenya vote went solidly to the Uhuru-Ruto ticket, with other candidates from the community such as Peter Kenneth, Martha Karua, Paul Muite and Joseph Nyaga getting negligible support because they were seen as spoilers.
However, Mt Kenya support for Mr Ruto has to be weighed against the fact of the looming leadership void in the absence of a successor to the Kenyatta mantle and a serious presidential candidate yet to declare.
It is likely that when a presidential candidate emerges with potential to carry community hopes and aspirations, the support Mr Ruto presently seems to have in Mt Kenya will dissipate in a flash.
The DP faces a dilemma on the Mt Kenya question and his choice of running mate.
Some of his strongest supporters from the community also expect that one of their own will be the running mate.
The logic is that Mr Ruto deputised President Kenyatta and he must now return the favour.
This presents a problem because it reinforces the perception that Jubilees want to extend the trend of the presidency being a Kikuyu-Kalenjin rotation.
Such a development would force other communities critical to Mr Ruto’s presidential quest to reconsider their place in Jubilee.
At the same time, selecting a non-Kikuyu would dash a lot of hopes and also prompt a substantial flight.
Mr Ruto is thus in a darned if you do, darned if you don’t quandary, but selection of a running mate is hardly his priority for 2020.
He has more urgent issues on his plate, mainly around keeping his place in the government and the party.
His apparent opposition to the Uhuru-Raila truce, the war against corruption and many other presidential initiatives that his cronies regularly fight in loud orchestrated chorus often make him look like leader of the opposition rather than Number Two in government,
He has to tread a delicate balancing act between charting his own political destiny in the current dispensation, or going out in open rebellion.
Mr Ruto knows that, unlike past vice-presidents, he was elected in his own right and cannot be sacked, but he is still careful not to be seen in open confrontation with the President.
Indeed at almost every political rally, he will voice his loyalty to President Kenyatta and commitment to the Jubilee government agenda.
It does not help, however, when he sits back at the same rallies and looks on as his supporters launch direct attacks on the President and declare open opposition to government programmes.
The first half of 2020 is likely to be dominated by two issues that could further divide Jubilee and raise questions about Mr Ruto’s prospects and his place in the scheme of things.
One is continuing debate on the BBI recommendations, which will see Mr Ruto’s faction aggressively oppose a likely push from Mr Odinga for creation of a powerful office of prime minister and a number of deputies.
The other is the long-delayed Jubilee elections, which the DP is keen to have called in the confidence that his slate will sweep the board. President Kenyatta’s supporters are thus wary about the party polls.
Both are issues that will keep Mr Ruto in the eye of the storm.
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