Raila Odinga, the smiling eminence of Kenyan politics, has an admirable record of contesting national elections and a miserable record of winning them. Since his first presidential run 30 years ago, Mr. Odinga, 77, has been at the center of nearly every election, mostly as the aggrieved loser claiming to have been cheated of his rightful victory.
Could this time be different? With the most recent polls showing Mr. Odinga in the lead over his rival, William Ruto, the big prize seems to be within his grasp. But Kenyan elections can be messy, unpredictable affairs, with few certainties — a lesson Mr. Odinga knows better than most.
High office is in his blood. The son of Kenya’s first vice-president, and an avowed leftist, Mr. Odinga entered politics soon after returning to Kenya from his engineering studies in communist East Germany in the 1960s.
He was detained without trial for six years after an unsuccessful coup attempt against Daniel arap Moi, Kenya’s longest-serving ruler, in 1982 — and arrested twice after. Once finally released, he led protests that culminated in Kenya’s first multiparty election in 1992 — although the first truly free vote would take another decade.
He first ran for the presidency in 1997, and again in 2007, when a disputed result led to widespread violence that killed over 1,200 people. He tried again in 2013 and 2017, both times losing to Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s outgoing president.
Through it all, Mr. Odinga has remained defiantly present — the outsider who could command newspaper front pages; the rabble-rouser who cast himself as the champion of the marginalized; the loser who crowned himself as the “People’s President” after losing the 2017 vote.
If he can win this time, victory will be more than a personal vindication; it will make him the first leader of Kenya to come from outside the Kikuyu and Kalenjin ethnic groups that have dominated power since independence in 1963. Mr. Odinga is from the fourth largest group — the Luo — who have long resented being excluded from power.
An Odinga presidency would also make history through his running mate, Martha Karua, who would become Kenya’s first female vice president.
But if Mr. Odinga, the perennial outsider, is finally on the verge of achieving his dream, he is doing it as an insider thanks to the so-called “handshake,” his contentious 2018 pact with President Kenyatta that ensured him the president’s backing in this race.
Supposedly an initiative to heal Kenya’s political divisions, the deal was widely criticized as yet another elite pact. One of its major provisions, a plan to amend the Constitution, was struck down by the courts in March.
Even so, in this election the “handshake” has earned Mr. Odinga precious votes from some of Mr. Kenyatta’s supporters, putting him one major step closer to the job he has coveted for decades.