William Ruto likes to talk about his humble origins – his barefoot childhood in the Rift Valley; his first pair of shoes at age 15; the time he wasted by selling chickens and ground nuts by the side of a busy highway.
That story is at the heart of Ruto’s campaign talk for what he calls the ‘hustler nation’: hardworking and ambitious young people who, like him once, deserve a better deal. “If you listen to Joe Biden, he speaks the same language,” Ruto said in an interview. “How do we bring the majority to the table, where their talents, energy and ideas are also part of the shaping of the nation?”
But it’s not that simple. Although Mr Ruto disapproves of the outgoing government, he has been part of it for the past nine years – as Kenya’s Vice President. And his days of poverty are far behind: His vast business interests, acquired during his time in politics, include a 2,500-acre farm, a luxury hotel and a giant poultry factory.
Today, Mr. Ruto, 55, travels by helicopter rather than a ‘matatu’, the overcrowded minibuses used by the average Kenyan ‘hustler’.
There are contradictions on all sides in this groundbreaking election, and Mr. Ruto has brought a hard-charging, fledgling energy to the country’s dying elite politics.
Even opponents admit that he is charismatic, hardworking and full of new ideas. Its promises of a bottom-up economy resonate with poor Kenyans still reeling from the pandemic and struggling with rising food and fuel prices.
And he has pledged to wipe out Kenya’s old political dynasties – epitomized by his opponent, Raila Odinga, 77, and his political nemesis (and former boss), outgoing president, Uhuru Kenyatta.
“There is no doubt that William Ruto’s presidential campaign has misled Kenya’s political establishment,” David Ndii, an influential economist who supports Mr Ruto, wrote on the eve of Tuesday’s vote. “They didn’t just see a con man re-imagining our politics.”
Yet the enmity of Mr. Ruto with Mr. Kenyatta, a particular focus of his most vehement attacks on the campaign trail, the sense of a vendetta. Critics call that an example of ruthless style, as Mr. Ruto would come to power, which could turn into an authoritarian regime.
Mr Ruto dismisses those concerns, as well as the controversy over his indictment by the International Criminal Court in 2011, on charges of fomenting election violence four years earlier. The case collapsed in 2016 after the Kenyan government stopped cooperating with prosecutors.
“The whole thing was a political charade,” said Mr. Ruto.
His biggest challenge right now may be apathy. An election campaign earlier this year had a disappointing turnout, especially among young Kenyans who are at the heart of Mr Ruto’s campaign.
So if he wants to emerge victorious, analysts say, he needs his supporters more than rushing. They have to go out to vote.
Abdi Latif Dahiru reporting contributed.