Madagascar’s Next Challenge

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On December 20th, Madagascar held parliamentary and presidential run-off elections that offer a possible reprieve from nearly five years of political turmoil and instability that has led to a sharp decline in human rights and a severely weakened economy. Initial reports claim the elections were generally peaceful and the head of the European Union election observer mission deemed them “free, credible and democratic.” The electoral commission is expected to release official results by January 7, 2014.

However, when polls closed, both candidates prematurely claimed victory and cried foul simultaneously. At this point, neither the electoral commission nor international election observers have verified any instances of fraud. In addition to the highly divisive presidential run-off, 151 parliamentarians sought office in a restored democratic legislature. After years of false starts, successful elections would signify a high water mark in Madagascar politics over the last several years and an important breakthrough in the stalled electoral process. However, the real test of the government, opposition, and military’s commitment to restore stability will be to collectively accept the outcomes and move beyond factious crisis politics.

The Madagascan political crisis began in early 2009 when Andry Rajoelina, then mayor of Antananarivo, unconstitutionally ascended to the presidency following the military coup that deposed elected president Marc Ravalomanana. Rajoelina immediately suspended the elected parliament and appointed a self-selected “transitional” parliament in its place. Opposition political activity was curtailed through arbitrary bans on meetings and protests as well as targeted harassment, arrest, and violence toward opposition supporters. Ravalomanana fled into exile in South Africa, where he remains despite years of attempted mediation between the two parties. Major donors such as the European Union, International Monetary Fund and World Bank suspended funding following the coup and the economy spiraled into decline.  The continued instability led to sharp declines in political rights and civil liberties as captured by Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report.

In late 2012, under the guidance of Southern African Development Community (SADC), both Ravalomanana and Rajoelina agreed to a road map for elections in which neither would run. However, when Lalao Ravalomanana, the wife of Marc Ravalomanana, filed for candidacy, Rajoelina reneged and announced he would also contest the elections. The electoral committee approved both candidates, along with former President Didier Ratsiraka, and postponed the elections from May to August 2013. The decision to allow the candidacies to go forward was met with harsh international and domestic criticism and led international donors to suspend electoral funding. However, in a rare moment of judicial independence, the Special Electoral Court (ESC) disqualified all three candidates and postponed the elections again until October.

Thirty three candidates stood in the first round elections in October, which were credited by EU and SADC observers as free and fair. Despite isolated instance of violence, polling was generally peaceful and voter turnout was over 60 percent of registered voters, a similar percentage to the 2006 election. However, problems with the voter registry led to the exclusion of many voters. The electoral commission claimed to have corrected the problem ahead of December, but critics claim the changes were inadequate.

While the electoral commission can boast a technically sound October election, the results are not as straightforward. The run-off candidates—Jean Louis Robinson and Hery Rajaonarimampianina—embody Madagascar’s political divide. Robinson, a medical doctor, martial arts competitor, and former minister of health and sports, is directly supported by Ravalomanana. In contrast, Rajaonarimampianina, the former Minister of Finance and Budget in the transitional government, is unofficially backed by Rajoelina. According to the road map, heads of institutions, including the sitting president, are barred from actively supporting candidates. However, using a controversial decree, Rajoelina regularly appeared alongside candidates at rallies with the stipulation that he did not speak. The ESC did repeal the decree, but only the day before the December election took place. Both candidates adopted many of the political stances of their patrons and heavily depend on their pre-existing support bases. Robinson has gone as far as adopting Ravalomanana’s electoral slogan “Just Believe.”

While too early to dismiss the candidates as outright proxies, the threat of a “Putin scenario” in which either Ravalomanana or Rajoelina continues to pull the strings from behind the scenes looms large. When asked directly in a January 2013 interview about becoming prime minister, Rajoelina did not reject the possibility. Likewise, Robinson has vowed to allow the return of Ravalomanana, who reportedly demanded control of half of the government ministries in exchange for his support. The wildcard is the military, widely regarded as anti-Ravalomanana. How military leaders would react to a Robinson victory is unknown. Fears of rigging escalated in late November when the government replaced ten regional governors with military officers due to vague concerns over “recent insecurity and the national political context.” The current army chief was an active participant in the 2009 coup and is considered a close Rajoelina ally.

December’s elections provide Madagascar an opportunity to shift away from crisis, and begin the healing of political rifts, rebuilding the battered economy, and providing adequate services for the heavily impoverished population—the World Bank estimates that 90 percent of Malagasies live on less than two dollars a day. However, technically sound polls will not by themselves facilitate a return to democracy. Political and military leaders must respect the entirety of the electoral process and its outcomes in order to reduce the high tensions of the last five years and regain the support—both political and financial—of the international community.

Photo Caption: Hery Rajaonarimampianina, one of the candidates running for president in Madagascar
Photo Credit: Screengrab from Al Jazeera

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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