Senator Kiraitu Murungi-versus-Governor Peter Gatirau Munya has become one of the most-watched gubernatorial contests as the country heads for elections on August 8.
The race pitting the two lawyers is one that has grabbed national attention, with the Jubilee Party presidential succession also coming into play.
Mr Munya, the incumbent, has declared that he will seek to succeed President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2022 — a pledge that threatens to upset the Jubilee succession plan, which features Deputy President William Ruto as the next in line.
The intense split in the greater Meru has even encouraged opposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga to make forays into a region initially considered an impregnable Jubilee fortress that has delivered the killer punches against him in the past two presidential elections.
At the same time, Mr Munya is crying foul, complaining that State machinery has been mobilised to support Mr Kiraitu, and is threatening to reconsider his support for President Kenyatta’s re-election.
“If we are supporting your re-election and you allow elements within your administration to harass us, what other option do we have?” Mr Munya said in an interview with NTV in Meru town on Monday.
“If the chiefs continue being used to undermine PNU’s political activities, we will have no recourse other than to rethink our political stand.”
The cloud of dust raised by the two main contenders as Mr Munya defends his seat on the ticket of PNU, which he leads, and Mr Murungi lunges at him on the Jubilee ticket, has blanked out the other four candidates.
Mr Munya rose to national prominence as chairman of the Council of Governors over the past couple of years, from where he took center stage every time county governments clashed with the national government.
Mr Murungi is an old-timer — one of the ‘Young Turks’ who led the fight against the one-party system in the early 1990s.
He was first elected MP for South Imenti with the return of multi-party democracy in 1992 and was a constant presence in the National Assembly until 2013 when he moved to the Senate.
He also served as a powerful Cabinet minister in the Mwai Kibaki government.
The other candidates are former assistant minister Kilemi Mwiria of the Maendeleo Chap Chap (MCC) party and Ms Winnie Kaburu (Wiper), as well as two independent candidates: Buuri MP Kinoti Gatobu and Bishop Kiambi Atheru.
The Munya-Murungi battle has come to reflect the cleavages in Jubilee around DP Ruto and the presidential succession, which are also being played out in other parts of President Kenyatta’s central Kenya strongholds.
In Meru, Mr Murungi leads a line-up of Jubilee candidates for various other positions seen to have Mr Ruto’s backing, including Igembe South MP Mithika Linturi, who is seeking to succeed him in the Senate.
Others are Tigania East MP Mpuru Aburi, a former Raila ally and a stern critic of Mr Munya, Mr Kubai Iringo (Igembe Central) and Anglo Leasing whistle blower Maoka Maore, a former MP who beat the incumbent in the Igembe North primaries.
They have however distanced themselves from politics surrounding the woman representative position after an attempt to endorse Ms Kawira Mwangaza, a local media owner, against incumbent Florence Kajuju backfired.
Mr Murungi was one of the key figures behind the formation of Jubilee Party after all the parties grouped under the former Jubilee coalition folded — including his own Alliance Party of Kenya (APK) as well as the two main partners, President Kenyatta’s TNA and Mr Ruto’s URP.
Mr Munya, sensing that he could not beat the senator for the Jubilee ticket, resisted the merger and instead took over and resuscitated retired President Kibaki’s 2007-2013 ‘ruling’ party PNU.
He is battling the Jubilee wave alongside lawyer Mugambi Imanyara (Senate candidate), Ms Elizabeth Kailemia (Woman Rep candidate) and Tigania West MP David Karithi, among others.
Although the PNU endorsed President Kenyatta’s re-election bid, it opted to retain its identity as an independent party free to field candidates other than for State House.
This has raised tension in the area, where official Jubilee candidates are keen to lock out rivals from ‘friendly’ parties as witnessed during the recent presidential campaign tours.
“Meru is a Jubilee zone, with or without Governor Munya’s support,” Mr Murungi said at a press conference at his Nkubu home on Monday.
“Mr Munya’s claims that the national government is frustrating the Party of National Unity meetings are baseless because he has been given security by the same government.”
All the candidates have been profuse in their pledges to change the face of Meru and livelihoods of residents if elected.
The county has 702,480 registered voters.
Water, agriculture, education and health are some of the sectors around which politicians have developed colourful manifestos for the election.
The incumbent is seeking a second term to continue with his development agenda, citing setting up of saccos, a county microfinance bank, upgrading of towns and market centres and increased access to health care.
He maintains that his “development record and fair distribution of jobs” gives him an upper hand in the August 8 elections.
Mr Murungi is promising to allocate Sh100 million ward development fund to the 45 wards every year, which translates to a whopping Sh4.5 billion.
He is also pledging scholarships for all top performers and needy students as well as free milk for nursery schools.
Dr Mwiria, who was initially eyeing the Jubilee ticket before citing unfairness and decamping to MCC, promises to construct roads, railway lines, airstrips and provide electricity, housing and telecommunication in all sub-counties.
Mr Gatobu, the youngest contender on an independent ticket, pledges to spend up to Sh1 billion every year to feed pupils and students in all nursery, primary and secondary schools as well as polytechnics, colleges and universities in Meru.
Bishop Atheru is promising piped water in all the 256,000 households at a cost of Sh1.5 billion every year and tarmac 180 kilometres of roads.
He is also promising free agriculture, livestock and fisheries extension services and subsidised farm inputs, as well as free health services.
Ms Kaburu vows to establish a youth entrepreneurship and apprenticeship scheme and create a leading technology hub within Meru, “bringing start-ups, entrepreneurs and industry specialists together in an innovative and vibrant environment”.