Election Special: Madagascar

Delayed since May, can scheduled elections now proceed in September, or will Andry Rajoelina put them off again?

The ex-Mayor of Antananarivo (capital of the Malagasy Republic or Madagascar and a city with one of the planet's least pronounceable names), usurped the leadership in what former colonial power France termed a "coup" in 2009.  Former disc jockey and radio station owner, the wealthy son of a colonel, Andry Rajoelina consolidated his hold on national power when the military passed him the role of pro-tem de facto head of state in 2009. 

The elected incumbent, Marc Ravalomanana, had escaped into exile in Swaziland then South Africa.  He's since been sentenced in absentia to four years hard labour for alleged abuse of office including the purchase of a presidential jet. An act of extravagance not so uncommon for leaders in Africa, it might be thought.  Certainly there's been talk in Mbabane, the Swazi capital.  The Independent reported on August 9, "Swaziland is facing mounting calls to open up a secretive fund allegedly used to bankroll the lavish lifestyle of its royal family, to help rescue the kingdom from its financial crisis."  A few hurdles to overcome there, as democracy has yet to prevail in that particular neighbour to Madagascar. 

Andry Rajoelina, as president of the High Transitional Authority has pushed through a referendum on a fresh constitution granting him authority as interim president until elections can be held.  He's said he doesn't want the top job on a permanent basis, but a clause in the constitution lowered the threshold age for candidates to 35, and as a 36-year old he'd be able to run if he changed his mind. Another clause prohibits non-residents from contesting the presidency, ruling out a bid from rival Ravalomanana.

In November 2010, the Guardian reported, "the international community is divided. America has applied economic sanctions that have stung Madagascar's textile industry but Russia and China have adopted a business as usual approach. SADC (a Southern African club of countries) and the AU (a supra-national continent-wide group) have suspended Madagascar's membership but France is maintaining a "pragmatic" line, which rules out disengagement. Indeed, rumours continue to circulate in Madagascar about the invisible role France may have played in Rajoelina's ousting of Ravalomanana."  According to the British daily, "America had a liking for Ravalomanana".  So, the US might switch stances once his presidency is legimatised by electoral success.  Should he stand.  I'd have thought he'd need to, for any future leader could authorise courts to indict him for grabbing power.

No date's been set yet; time is short if the September deadline for parliamentary and presidential votes are to take place.

This vast, mountainous country often changes governments "after a period of civil unrest. There is potential for renewed political violence, which will be met with robust repression by Rajoelina's military backers" notes the Guardian.  

Madagascar has a population of 22 million living in an area of 587,000 sq miles - nearly the size of the Ukraine but bigger than California.  A difficult place to manage, the people of the Highlands tend to be Malayo Polynesian-speaking Austronesians while the people of the plains Bantu-speaking Africans.  It is tension between highlanders and coastal dwellers that tends to flare up from time to time.

France's practice of classifying the people on a racial basis, a policy which was continued for fifteen years after independence until 1975, exasperated the situation. 

Recent trouble has almost killed off tourism which dropped by 50% in 2009, as well as investor interest that's holding fire until the situation stabilises.

After Ravalomanana's efforts to boost the country's fortunes by working "aggressively to revive the economy" following a 2002 political crisis (as noted by the World Factbook), this regular interruption to growth and calm bodes ill for Madagascar's future.

Can an election bring hope, or will the cycle of political and economic disruption inevitably return?  As three political parties, each led by a former president, boycotted the recent referendum on the now functioning fourth republic, their involvement in an upcoming campaign is uncertain.  It looks like not enough Madagascans wish to honour the anthem, 'Oh, Beloved Land of our Ancestors!'

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