Cabinet Secretary Charles Keter may not be on the ballot for any elective seat in Kericho County, but his shadow looms large as residents prepare for the August polls.
Mr Keter, who represented the county as senator before being appointed to Cabinet last year, has become a powerful kingmaker in the region’s politics.
Because of his closeness to Deputy President William Ruto, Mr Keter is dreaded and loved in equal measure.
He is among Cabinet ministers aggressively campaigning for the Jubilee administration’s re-election and is expected to play a critical role in South Rift politics, where Bomet Governor Isaac Ruto has been flexing his muscle.
There is an unspoken fear that politicians not in Mr Keter’s good books could be locked out during the Jubilee Party primaries.
According to Maasai Mara University Political Science lecturer Joel Soi, one-half of the county electorate is likely to look up to him and seek his direction on whom they should choose for various positions in the election, making him an automatic kingpin in the county.
The other half that dislikes him, however, feels that the influential CS is using his position to build a monarchy of sorts by appointing his cronies and fronting his family members to vie for major positions in the county in an effort to act as his puppets if elected.
This, they argue, will afford him the opportunity to pull the real power strings.
“Mr Keter is an influential politician and holds a crucial docket, which directly impacts on the lives of Kenyans. Every time he launches a street lighting project, people gather to listen to him. However, half of those people feel that he is domineering and patronising,” said Mr Soi.
An endorsement from the former Kericho Senator is a double-edged sword and could be a blessing or a curse.
Aspirants say such an endorsement could either turn them into overnight sensations or kill their political dreams after being branded as “spineless projects” with no political muscle of their own.
Just last month, while accompanying the DP for a function in Kericho Town, Mr Keter defended himself against claims that he had sponsored close aides and relatives to run for elective offices in the county.
The statement could have been prompted by growing fears among aspirants that the influential minister could have a hand in the move by his wife – Winnie Keter and his close aide Hillary Chepkwony – to run for political seats.
While Mrs Keter is seeking the position of Woman Rep, Mr Chepkwony is, on the other hand, hoping to clinch the Kipchebor Ward seat. Both are vying under the Jubilee party.
Mr Keter has also been linked to a move by former National Social Security Fund Managing Trustee Richard Langat to run for the Kericho governor’s seat, an allegation which both men have denied.
“These people have a democratic right to run for office. If people do not like them, they should not vote for them. Nobody should be denied a chance to run because of their close relationship with me. Everyone should have an equal chance and I will not favour any of the candidates,” said Mr Keter.
Jubilee has over the past two weeks witnessed an exodus of leading aspirants over fears that the party nominations could be tampered with.
Woman Representative aspirant Vicky Bati and Belgut Parliamentary aspirant Raymond Cheruiyot found refuge in Kanu after claiming that the party had been hijacked by a few people who had turned it into a “business enterprise”.
Ms Bati says she decided to quit the Jubilee Party following pressure from supporters.
She urged them to support her efforts to deliver Kericho from what she describes as “political tyranny.”
She argues that Kericho had been taken over by political cartels.
She quit just days after Mrs Keter declared her interest in the seat, making it almost clear that she was uncomfortable with the entry of the CS wife in the contest.
“We have no choice but to hit back by all means necessary. My decision to quit Jubilee was largely driven by the demand by my supporters who felt that they were being short-changed by a few individuals who perceive Kericho as a business ground and take the party as their own,” said Ms Bati.
But Mrs Keter’s supporters came out to defend their candidate, accusing Ms Bati of being too timid to face her in the contest and creating unnecessary tension in the region’s political arena with her claims.
At a press conference at a hotel in Kericho Town, her supporters threatened to rally youth and women to boycott the Jubilee primaries slated for mid next month if Mrs Keter’s name is struck off the list of aspirants because of her close association with Mr Keter.
Ms Anne Koech from Ainamoi said women had petitioned Mrs Keter to run for the seat after considering the work that she had done for them through her organisation – the Socio-Economic Empowerment Women Organisation (Seewo).
“The women of this county asked Mrs Keter to run. Energy CS Keter has nothing to do with her decision and we are warning Jubilee that we will not participate in the nomination if her name is removed from the list of aspirants. Being a wife of a minister is not enough reason to lock her out of the race,” said Ms Koech.
Mr Cheruiyot also said he had been pressured by supporters to decamp, adding, however, that his support for President Kenyatta’s re-election was unwavering.
Mr Keter’s role in the election is expected to become even more pronounced as he fights to protect Jubilee’s interests in the South Rift.
“Nobody will wrest away control of Jubilee in the South Rift as long as I am here. All the 300,000 registered voters in Kericho will rally behind the DP and Jubilee 100 per cent,” said Mr Keter in a previous meeting.
There are fears that should the Jubilee Party mess up the nominations by interfering with the process, the electorate could desert the party and opt to vote for candidates from other parties during the August elections as a way of showing their displeasure.