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ISS TODAY OP-ED

Madagascar’s age-old foes scuffle more on streets than in hustings

Madagascar’s age-old foes scuffle more on streets than in hustings
President of Madagascar Andry Rajoelina. (Photo: Présidence de la République de Madagascar)

President Andry Rajoelina, who first took power in a coup, is bashing aside opposition protesters in search of another term.

The Malagasy people will, on 16 November, go to elections amid growing demonstrations by the opposition that are putting the country on a knife edge. President Andry Rajoelina is seeking a third term, though political upheavals over the past 14 years – which restarted the constitutional clock – would make this his second consecutive term. 

Rajoelina came to power in a military coup that toppled elected president Marc Ravalomanana in 2009. Rajoelina and Ravalomanana were pressured by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) not to run in the 2013 polls. Rajoelina returned to win the 2018 elections, which means if he wins on 16 November, he could hold the top office for 14 years. 

The polls have already been marred by several controversies over which Rajoelina has typically ridden roughshod. Last month the constitutional court dismissed an attempt to disqualify him from the presidency after it was revealed that he held dual Malagasy-French citizenship. This appeared to violate the law. 

Rajoelina’s blithe response was that he had sought and obtained French citizenship in 2014 because he had then been ruled out of politics and needed French nationality so his children could attend school in France. Who could object to a father trying to educate his children, he asked.

The constitutional court also dismissed opposition objections to Rajoelina appointing an ally, Prime Minister Christian Ntsay, as interim president during the elections. The constitution stipulates that an interim government must preside during the voting process under the stewardship of the president of the senate. The incumbent, Herimanana Razafimahefa, had declined the job “for personal reasons” before changing his mind when it was too late. 

Our country is in bad shape, our people are suffering, and we are the cause of this failure.

Ten opposition candidates complained to the electoral commission that this move was tantamount to an “institutional coup” that would give Rajoelina a strong advantage in the polls. The commission dismissed their concerns, as then did the court. 

The court did postpone the election by a week, from 9 to 16 November, on appeal from presidential candidate Andry Raobelina, who needed time to heal after police injured his eye at a rally. This week, the court dismissed a second appeal from him for a longer extension, so now elections seem set for 16 November. 

The Collective of Eleven – a group of opposition presidential candidates including Ravalomanana and another former president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina – have been boycotting the election campaign. They arranged unauthorised protest marches against what they regarded as Rajoelina’s biased handling of the elections. In response, the government has broken up the protests with tear gas, batons and arbitrary arrests.

Seif Magango, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed concern about the “deteriorating human rights situation” and accused security forces of using “unnecessary and disproportionate force to disperse four peaceful protests in two weeks”.

He urged Malagasy authorities to uphold freedom of expression and assembly, refrain from using disproportionate force, and create an environment conducive to free, fair and transparent elections. Public order processes, such as obtaining authorisation for peaceful protests, shouldn’t be used to deny or discourage peaceful assemblies, he said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: President Andry Rajoelina and the extreme personalisation of power in Madagascar

Representatives of the European Union, several international organisations and countries including the US, France, Germany and Japan have denounced the “disproportionate use of force” to disperse opposition demonstrations.

Perhaps the most worrying opinion came from Madagascar’s national assembly president, Christine Razanamahasoa: “Our country is in bad shape, our people are suffering, and we are the cause of this failure. We are at an impasse,” she told opposition parliamentarians, warning that the seeds of a “fratricidal war are visible and continue to grow”. She said she would go “where there will be a way out of the crisis in the supreme interest of the nation”.

Rajoelina said the protests and marches were efforts by his opponents to orchestrate a ‘political transition’ instead of polls. This was rich coming from someone who mounted public protests against Ravalomanana in 2009, ending in a coup that toppled him and put Rajoelina in power.

Razanamahasoa is right that the country is not in great shape. In its March 2023 Article IV consultation report, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated poverty at above 80%. It said growth was “projected to stall at 4.2%” while annual average inflation was forecast to accelerate above 10%. 

Although authorities had implemented several key IMF recommendations, “ambitious reforms remain hampered by limited capacity and weak governance”. The IMF nevertheless disbursed a third tranche of Special Drawing Right of about$32.6-million, usable for budget support, of its Extended Credit Facility to Madagascar. 

Country ‘moving forward’

Rajoelina shrugged off these statistics and other criticisms in a France 24 and RFI interview last week. He said Madagascar’s economic growth projection was above the African average of 3.6%, so “the country is moving forward” – even if a lot was needed to eradicate poverty and overcome the enormous challenges of backlogs in electricity and water supply.

He also dismissed widespread criticism of his suppression of opposition protests, saying freedom of opinion and assembly remained guaranteed, and the opposition had the right to hold meetings as part of their election campaigns. But he said the protests and marches – and attempts to postpone the elections – were efforts by his opponents to orchestrate a “political transition” instead of polls.

This was rich coming from someone who mounted public protests against Ravalomanana in 2009, ending in a coup that toppled him and put Rajoelina in power. 

Three weeks out, it is still unclear what will happen. If the Collective of Eleven persists with its boycott, tensions will surely rise. Sources tell ISS Today that the SADC offered to send its Panel of Elders to mediate, but Rajoelina declined as he thought that would imply a crisis, which he denies. It remains to be seen if the African Union, the SADC and the Francophonie will send observer missions. 

This week, the Collective of Eleven became 10 (or effectively nine as Raobelina remains in Mauritius receiving treatment) as Siteny Randrianasoloniaiko pulled out and began campaigning. A former judo champion and head of the African Judo Union, he is a charismatic and populist legislator many believe is Rajoelina’s main rival

Even so, diplomatic and other observers believe Rajoelina has the resources – perhaps “borrowed” from the state – to emerge victorious once more. But in what overall context remains worryingly unclear. DM

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria.

First published by ISS Today

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