Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Smooth Madagascar vote seen vital to restoring economy

Voters in Madagascar's presidential election on Friday desperately hope for an end to a five-year political crisis that has scared off investors and severely damaged the economy, but there is little optimism they will get their wish.

There are low expectations on the nickel and vanilla-producing Indian Ocean island for a conclusive result from the first vote since 39-year-old former disc jockey Andry Rajoelina seized power in a military-backed coup in March 2009.

"The election could put an end to a crisis that gets deeper every day," said university student Andry Rabezatovo. "But nothing is for certain. Getting out of this turmoil is a fragile process. The slightest upset could lead to further chaos."

There are no reliable opinion polls to indicate a favourite among the 33 candidates, none of whom are well known. Rajoelina and the wife of the president he toppled, Marc Ravalomanana, have been barred by court order from competing.

A peaceful and credible vote in Madagascar, one of the world's largest islands but poorest countries, would be a key step towards unblocking aid and luring back foreign companies.

But Friday's poll is unlikely to produce an outright winner, prolonging uncertainty until a second round in December. Even initial results are likely to come in slowly and the electoral commission has until November 8 to announce a provisional count.

Many of the 7.8 million eligible voters worry the results could be disputed. Diplomats are anxiously watching the military, still led by a general who rallied troops behind Rajoelina in 2009.

On the decaying streets of Antananarivo, capital of the former French colony, campaign posters plaster some walls, the occasional van drives around decked in colours of a presidential hopeful and newspapers are filled with electoral promises.

But disenchantment with politics runs deep.

"We've lost all confidence in our politicians," said a 51-year-old store manager who gave her name as Josianne.

Her boutique selling luxury bags by Longchamp and Givenchy for as much as $2,000 underlines the yawning rich-poor divide. Nine out of 10 Malagasy live on less than $2 a day, the World Bank says, more than 15 percentage points worse than pre-crisis levels.

Antananarivo's residents complain of a surge in crime and drug addiction. Aid cuts by disenchanted donors have deprived the government of cash and power outages are increasingly common while many roads are crumbling.

Beyond the capital, life can be even tougher, with many of the 22 million population of the island off the African coast struggling as subsistence farmers facing a constant struggle with cyclones and locusts.


Madagascar's prospects looked different in 2008. The economy was growing at more than 7 percent a year after Ravalomanana invited foreign firms such as Canada's Sherritt International and Rio Tinto to exploit large mineral reserves that include nickel, cobalt, chrome, gold and oil.

But Rajoelina, then the capital's mayor, accused Ravalomanana of running the country like a personal fiefdom. Protests erupted in early 2009 and the army stepped in. Ravalomanana fled to South Africa where he remains.

The economy contracted more than 4 percent in 2009. The World Bank forecasts 3.3 percent growth this year but says income per capita has fallen back to 2001 levels.

"(Madagascar's) finances are in a very difficult situation right now," Haleh Bridi, the World Bank's representative said.

That has not stopped candidates criss-crossing the island, which is slightly smaller than Texas, with promises of free primary education, tax cuts and new foreign investment.

For now, most state schools are broke and many parents can't afford the requested top-up fees, so children stay home.

The economic suffering has been exacerbated by a seemingly perpetual political crisis. A deal brokered by regional states to ensure neither Rajoelina nor Ravalomanana ran fell apart when the latter's wife tried to stand, prompting Rajoelina to say he would run too.

A court finally barred them both.

Friday's election date was set after several delays because of the political squabbling.

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