Cautious optimism as Madagascar votes in (relative) peace

By Simon Allison 29 October 2013

It’s been a tough four years for Madagascar: first a coup, and then a precipitous economic decline. They’ve even been struck by the Black Plague, that most medieval of epidemics. Yet there’s light at the end of the tunnel. A long-delayed election finally happened this week, and it went pretty well. South Africa’s diplomats, so influential in getting the country to this point, are cautiously optimistic. By SIMON ALLISON.

In southern Africa these days, free and fair elections are not hard to come by. An encouraging sign of democratic development, perhaps; or a troubling indictment of the Southern African Development Community’s increasingly low standards (there was nothing wrong with the Zimbabwe polls, remember?). Either way, to the list of recent ‘credible’ elections in the region we can now add the example of Madagascar.

Four years after the coup that ousted President Marc Ravalomanana, sending him into comfortable if frustrating exile in Sandton, citizens of Africa’s largest island voted for a new president on Saturday – with neither Ravalomanana nor coup leader Andriy Rajoelina on the ballot.

The elections were a long time coming, with both leaders proving reluctant to negotiate or compromise. Neither was above deliberate provocation, either. Despite their mutual agreement to step aside from politics, Ravalomanana tried to get his wife Lalao to run for president, while Rajoelina just went ahead and nominated himself anyway. SADC mediators eventually dissuaded them, but not before rising tensions threatened to scuttle the delicate progress completely, and derail Madagascar’s return to representative government.

Polling day, however, was mercifully calm. Relatively calm may be a better description. Although one government official was killed (in a revenge attack apparently unrelated to the election), one voter kidnapped and one polling station torched, international observers were quick to praise the electoral commission and award their various seals of approval.

Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, head of the SADC observer mission, said the elections were “peaceful, calm, fair and transparent, and reflect the will of the people”. Just like Zimbabwe, then. But the European Union, which usually imposes more rigorous criteria, was also satisfied: “There was no electoral violence in general, and the election took place in a calm, peaceful and transparent environment,” said head of mission Maria Muniz de Urquiza. “Incidents such as the murder had nothing to do with the electoral process, but with banditry, according to information we have. The irregularities or little problems we witnessed such as the late delivery of election materials were resolved fairly quickly. So yes, until now we are generally happy.”

Under Madagascar’s voting system, a successful presidential candidate must receive more than 50% of the vote. If no candidate achieves this in the first round, then the top two will go into a run-off election – a situation which looks increasingly likely, based on preliminary results (final results could take until next Friday to be released).

Leading the pack, with 29% of the vote counted, is Jean Louis Robinson – a proxy for the exiled Ravalomanana. He’s got 30%. Some way behind him in second place is Hery Rajaonarimapianina, fronting for Rajoelina, with around 15%. This disparity is misleading, however, both because of the number of votes still to be counted and because Rajoelina’s support is spread among several candidates, and will likely coalesce behind just one in the run-off.

Whoever wins will have plenty of work to do, none of it easy. Since the coup, the business of governing has taken a backseat to all the politicking, and it’s starting to show: Madagascar’s economy is in freefall, poverty has risen dramatically and four million people face food shortages. Figuring out how to reverse this decline will be the new leader’s first priority (the restoration of foreign aid, which once made up 40% of the economy, should help).

In addition, the country is struggling with a surge in violent militia groups involved in cattle-rustling on an epic scale, and is struggling to contain an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague. As bizarre as it sounds, the medieval disease is thriving in Madagascar’s tropical conditions and in the absence of a functional health system.

South Africa will be watching Madagascar’s progress with unusually close attention. Our diplomats are heavily invested in the country’s recovery, having spear-headed the mediation between its battling factions. Much of the groundwork for the final deal was laid by department of international relations minister Marius Fransman on repeated trips to Antananarivo, and a successful election and aftermath will be some vindication of Dirco’s infamous ‘quiet diplomacy’, which favours a behind-the-scenes, make-no-waves approach to any kind of active intervention.

Although cautiously optimistic, Dirco aren’t patting themselves on the back just yet. The first round of the presidential election went well, but it’s just the first stage of Madagascar’s long and difficult road to recovery. DM

Photo: Madagascar’s Presidential candidate Robinson Jean-Louis salutes his supporters during prayers and a post-elections rally in the capital Antananarivo. (REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya)

Read more:

  • The Cartoon Farce of Madagascar’s election on Huffington Post

  • Isolated outbreaks of violence as Madagascar votes in first post-coup election on AFP


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