By OTIENO OTIENO
Presidential campaigns in Kenya are expected to pick up momentum once again after a three-week lay-off during which the top candidates sought to stem falling-outs from chaotic party primaries and called off public rallies to mourn former president Mwai Kibaki.
Deputy President William Ruto and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga resumed vote hunting in Nyanza and Mt Kenya counties respectively, addressing a series of town hall meetings and public rallies.
The choice of the two regions for the first port of call was significant given that a number of counties in these regions are considered potential swing vote zones in the August 9 election.
Kisii, one of the two counties in Nyanza where Dr Ruto was campaigning on Wednesday and Thursday, voted for Mr Odinga in his last presidential bid in 2017.
But a fairly credible performance by President Uhuru Kenyatta, with 43 percent of the votes, appears to have encouraged Dr Ruto that he can hold his own in the county.
Perhaps the most intriguing battle in this year’s election is shaping up in the Mt Kenya region – a bloc of about 10 vote-rich counties predominantly inhabited by the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru communities.
Although the Deputy President and his UDA party currently enjoy a huge following in the region that accounts for close to a third of national votes, a spirited campaign by Mr Odinga suggests that he believes he can still pick up enough votes to swing the race in his favour.
The former PM’s well-oiled campaign has the backing of President Uhuru Kenyatta and a club of rich financiers concerned about Dr Ruto’s populist “Hustler Nation” narrative that is drawing appeal of the underprivileged.
As part of his efforts to gain a foothold in Mt Kenya, Mr Odinga is believed to be seriously considering picking a running mate from the region and dumping his two-time deputy Kalonzo Musyoka.
Mr Musyoka, who hails from the Eastern region, has publicly laid claim to the running mate position, citing the sacrifice of his own presidential ambitions for the Azimio la Umoja coalition candidate, perceived political seniority, party strength and personal history with Mr Odinga.
Meanwhile, the battle for the mountain votes is expected to intensify in the coming weeks when President Kenyatta starts campaign tours in his restless Mt Kenya political base for Mr Odinga.
The president has kept off campaign rallies in the past two months, his last major appearance coming in March during the unveiling of Mr Odinga as the Azimio candidate.
Notably, the relationship between the president and the deputy president deteriorated further during this period, culminating in the duo taking a dig at each other at Kibaki’s funeral ceremony and engaging in a public spat on Labor Day.
The rare moment of direct confrontation between the political friends-turned-foes suggests that the gloves are off for the August election.
And ethnic permutations appearing to favor a Mt Kenya running mate for the Azimio candidate, Mr Musyoka’s thinly-veiled threat and some of his allies flirting with Dr Ruto have earned him a spoiler tag in the Odinga camp.