"Madagascar's Back on Track -- Destination Unknown"
This article first appeared in the newspaper City Press
Madagascar, one of the world’s poorest countries, has been mired in political crisis, since 2009, when 34-year-old former radio disc jockey Andry Rajoelina toppled President Marc Ravalomanana in a military coup d’état.
Social and economic conditions are dire. Investment and aid have been cut off. Poverty is on the rise. Insecurity and lawlessness prevail, and in the south dozens of civilians have been killed by heavily armed bandits. Compounding the deteriorating humanitarian situation, swarms of locusts now threaten 13 million farmers’ livelihood, as well as food security for all Malagasies.
There is, however, a ray of hope. Presidential elections, which have been scheduled and re-scheduled repeatedly since the coup, are now slated to take place on 25 October (with a run-off before Christmas if no candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the vote). Campaigning officially commenced last week. An internationally recognised free and fair election is key to ending Madagascar’s isolation, bringing back foreign investment and aid, and offering a pathway out of the current economic abyss.
That’s the best-case scenario; the country does not have a good democratic track record. In September 2011, an election roadmap brokered by the regional Southern African Development Community (SADC) was followed by an uncertain and tentative sixteen-month transitional power sharing arrangement. It did not resolve political deadlock between Ravalomana (living in exile in South Africa) and the transition leader, Rajoelina.
Earlier this year, the political winds looked promising. Both men agreed to withdraw from the presidential race in a good-faith agreement brokered by the international community to defuse the tense political situation. In a matter of weeks, both reneged. Ravalomanana put forward his wife, Lalao, in his stead, violating the agreement’s spirit if not the letter. Rajoelina broke it more directly, announcing that he would be a candidate himself. Another former president, Didier Ratsiraka,, also threw his hat in the ring.
Remarkably, the electoral court accepted their candidacies, despite all three failing to comply with eligibility criteria. Outraged, the international community refused to finance the vote and threatened sanctions if the three did not withdraw; they refused. An impasse ensued, with the politicians playing self-interested games while Madagascar slumped deeper into stagnation.
Recent developments have generated renewed momentum. A reconstituted electoral court ruled on 17 August that all three candidates (along with several others) did not qualify and would be excluded. The decision took domestic and international actors by surprise, but unlocked withheld finances and opened the way for the first legitimate elections in over two decades.
But uncertainty remains, exacerbated by several bomb blasts in the capital Antananarivo during September. The disqualifying of popular candidates like Ravalomana and Rajoelina has heightened tensions. Current regime insiders also have much to lose from surrendering power. Former presidents are invariably pushed into exile and it remains to be seen whether the outgoing government will continue to have a stake in the political system. With many uncertainties, it seems unlikely the regime will bow out graciously.
But in a country where the cynics are nearly always vindicated, there is still cause for optimism. Both the camps of Ravalomanana and Rajoelina have identified proxy candidates. While Rajoelina has tapped several regime insiders, Ravalomanana’s movement will be represented by Dr. Jean Louis Robinson, who served in his cabinet and worked closely with the World Health Organization. There are 31 other candidates, of varying quality.
If elections proceed peacefully and the Malagasy people and the international community deem the process and outcome credible, the country may have some real hope for recovery. If a return to electoral manipulation is allowed, the crisis will continue and some violence will be likely.
This outcome is not inevitable, but Madagascar’s politicians need to stop playing games and focus on national interests. Only then can the crisis end and the real work of dealing with locusts, bandits, and crippling poverty begin.