Azimio la Umoja One Kenya flag bearer Raila Odinga’s vow to skip tonight’s presidential debate triggered bitter exchanges as his main rival, Deputy President William Ruto, mocked him for the decision.
Barring a last-minute change of heart by Mr Odinga, Dr Ruto is set for a 90-minute monologue with moderators in a development reminiscent of the 2017 debate when President Kenyatta skipped the forum and left the ODM leader to hog the limelight.
It would be an anti-climax given the clash between the two presidential front runners was the headline event a fortnight to the August 9 vote, and following the showdown between their running mates, Mr Rigathi Gachagua and Ms Martha Karua last week.
Mr Odinga’s campaign team insisted he will snub the debate, portraying Dr Ruto as not worthy to share a podium with their candidate.
However, the DP charged that Mr Odinga is avoiding the spotlight as he could not defend his plan for the country, while his closest allies suggested the ODM leader was no match for the eloquence of their candidate.
Opinion is divided on the impact ,and motive for the snub, should it materialise, with some arguing Mr Odinga would be skipping an opportunity to press Dr Ruto about his conduct in public office while the DP would miss the chance to question the effectiveness of Mr Odinga as opposition leader given his dalliance with President Kenyatta.
Yesterday, Dr Ruto gave a glimpses into the punch lines he would use against Mr Odinga.
“Let my competitor come for the debate so that he can tell Kenyans why he thwarted government programmes with his handshake,” he added, citing the collapse of Jubilee government’s Big Four agenda.
“Our competitors have decided to avoid the debate because Mr Odinga has no plan to explain to Kenyans. The only plan that exists in this election is the Kenya Kwanza Alliance plan. Our competitors have no plans, agenda and ideas on how to take Kenya forward. This is the reason why they have run away from the debate,” the DP said.
“I want to encourage my competitor, Mr Odinga, please turn up for the debate; I’m waiting for you there because Kenyans want to know what your rhetoric means for them. Even if you don’t have a plan, please come explain to us your usual rhetoric,” he told a rally in Kesses, Uasin Gishu.
Organisers of the debate have confirmed that the debate will go on as planned, with the first tier featuring Roots Party of Kenya candidate Prof George Wajackoyah against his Agano counterpart David Waihiga.
Without his opponent, analysts say Dr Ruto will have ample time to articulate the Kenya Kwanza agenda to the disadvantage of Mr Odinga.
On the flip side, however, analysts say Mr Odinga’s absence will deny Dr Ruto an opportunity to press him on his relationship with the current administration, a situation that has put him on the defensive over claims of being a ‘State project’.
Azimio la Umoja coalition party secretary-general Junet Mohamed yesterday reiterated that Mr Odinga will not attend today’s debate. The coalition, he noted, would go on with its planned public engagement at Jericho Social Hall in Nairobi in the course of the week.
“We’re not attending the debate. We already pronounced ourselves on this. We shall have our own forum with Kenyans. We’re in the process of planning and we shall give you a date,” Mr Mohamed said.
He, however, was non-committal on the earlier indication that the town hall forum would be timed to coincide with the debate.
Announcing the decision to skip the debate, Mr Odinga’s campaign spokesperson, Prof Mutua, had accused Dr Ruto of ‘having no regard for ethics, public morals, or shame’.
Yesterday, Prof Mutua told the Nation that, Azimio had not yet settled on a date for its public debate in Jericho, only sayin
g, ‘it will probably be this week’.
“We shall do that depending on Baba and Martha’s schedule. We want to work with the media to decide on the format and structure of the event,” he added.
He downplayed the effect of the debate, arguing that many Kenyans have already made up their minds on their best bet for the presidency.
Elgeyo-Marakwet Senator Kipchumba Murkomen claimed Mr Odinga’s snub was informed by last week’s running mate debate in which “Rigathi Gachagua obliterated Martha Karua, the deputy project.”
Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro added: “Honestly, Raila couldn’t beat Ruto in this debate, Kenyans know that.”
Prof Naituli Gitile of Multi Media University argued that Mr Odinga’s decision against attending the debate comes against the backdrop of being labelled a State project.
“Mr Odinga’s camaraderie with President Uhuru Kenyatta could be the reason he is not keen on attending the debate,” Prof Gitile said.
By not attending the debate, Prof Gitile said, Mr Odinga misses an opportunity to tell Kenyans who Dr Ruto is.
“He understands Ruto. Ruto has been campaigning for almost six years now illegally and Mr Odinga ought to have seized that opportunity to put him to task over that and his failure to resign from Jubilee administration if not satisfied with it.”
Political analyst Mr Dismas Mokua argued that the Kenyan elections make presidential debates a useful asset given the high number of undecided voters.
“Presidential debates are very useful in validating and invalidating positions besides moving and influencing perceptions. Mr Raila Odinga should consider attending the debate as it gives him a unique opportunity to make his final submissions to a captive audience around his priorities,” Mr Mokua said.
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