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Madagascar was buffeted by continuing social and political unrest in 2004. In addition, President Marc Ravalomanana's government was the focus of growing frustration from army reservists demanding better compensation for their role in quelling the country's 2002 political crisis after disputed elections.
Madagascar, the world's fourth-largest island, lies 220 miles off Africa's southeastern coast. After 70 years of French colonial rule and episodes of severe repression, Madagascar gained independence in 1960. A leftist military junta seized power from President Philbert Tsiranana in 1972. A member of the junta, Admiral Ratsiraka, emerged as leader in 1975 and maintained power until his increasingly authoritarian regime bowed to social unrest and nonviolent mass demonstrations in 1991.
Under the new, 1992 constitution, opposition leader Albert Zafy won the presidency with more than 65 percent of the vote. Zafy failed to win reelection after being impeached by the Supreme Court in 1996. Ratsiraka won a narrow victory in a December 1996 presidential runoff election that was deemed generally legitimate by international and domestic observers.
In the 1990s, a weak party system complicated efforts at governance. Legislative elections in May 1998 were viewed as more problematic than preceding polls since Madagascar's transition to multiparty politics in 1992. The Council of Christian Churches and several political groups, for example, noted that the elections were marred by fraud and other abuses. The ruling Association for the Rebirth of Madagascar (AREMA) party won 63 of 150 parliamentary seats and emerged as the leading force in a coalition government.
A decentralization plan was narrowly approved in a 1998 referendum that was boycotted by the country's increasingly fractious opposition. November 1999 municipal polls resulted in overall success for independents who did not have close identification with a particular party. Elections were held in December 2000 for provincial councils, as the next step in the government's decentralization policy. In 2001, the first-ever Senate elections, part of a policy to extend democratic governance, finally took place after a long delay.
A presidential election was held in December 2001. Insisting that he had been denied an outright victory by polling irregularities, and refusing to take part in a postponed second round, Ravalomanana declared himself president in February 2002. After considerable violence between supporters of the two rival candidates, the High Constitutional Court announced in April that Ravalomanana had indeed won the election in the first round, and he was sworn into office in May. Ratsiraka refused to acknowledge this result. Fighting continued until July 2002, when Ratsiraka left the country and the last of his forces surrendered. The extended crisis had a seriously negative effect on the Malagasy economy.
Parliamentary elections took place in December 2002. Ravalomanana's I Love Madagascar party (TIM) won a large majority, gaining 131 out of 160 seats. Observers from the European Union said the conduct of the poll was "generally positive" despite a few reported "lapses," while the International Francophone Organization said it was "credible and transparent." Local elections that were held in 2003 further strengthened the Ravalomanana's position.
In 2004, army reservists demanded better compensation for their efforts during the country's political crisis in 2002. A series of grenade attacks which resulted in numerous injuries and arrests are believed to be linked to growing frustration over continued economic problems.
A heated debate continued on a proposed amnesty law for people who were detained following the 2002 political unrest; an attempt by opposition parties to have the law adopted had failed in November 2003.
Citizens of Madagascar have the right to change their government democratically, although the most recent presidential election demonstrates that this right is not yet fully enshrined in the country's political culture. The head of state is a president, directly elected to a five-year term by universal adult suffrage. The National Assembly, the lower chamber of the bicameral legislature, has 150 members directly elected to five-year terms. The upper chamber, the Senate, has 90 members―two-thirds of them elected by an electoral college and the remainder nominated by the president―serving six-year terms. A 1998 constitutional referendum gave the president the power to appoint or dismiss the prime minister, who may come from a party that has a minority of seats in the assembly; formerly, the National Assembly had this power. Approximately 150 parties are registered amid a welter of shifting political alliances. A variety of parties are active, but they suffer from internal divisions and a lack of clear ideology and resources.
Madagascar was ranked 82 out of 146 countries in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Madagascar's 16 million people have six daily newspapers and a number of weeklies and monthlies, as well as TV and radio stations. Because of the low literacy rate, the print media are mostly aimed at the French-educated urban elite. Some formerly pro-Ratsiraka radio stations, which operated like "hate radios" during the crisis, have switched to more mainstream forms of broadcasting. Internet use, although not widespread, is becoming more popular.
While there are constitutional provisions for press freedom, the government has limited these in practice. Some government officials reportedly sought to limit critical media coverage of alleged government malfeasance. The division of the country into two political camps following the disputed December 2001 presidential elections is apparent in the press. In February 2004, a private radio station, Radio Sava, was ordered closed. Reporters Sans Frontieres criticized the government's decision in June to close Radio Say, a private radio station known for its independent editorial stance, for "broadcasting false news, defamation and insults against the speaker of the National Assembly and a member of the government, and breach of operating terms and conditions." Radio Say was ordered to cease broadcasting following violence during independence day celebrations. No link has been made between the attack and the station's activities.
The government does not interfere with religious rights. More than half of the population adhere to traditional Malagasy religions and coexist with Christians and Muslims. In 1997, the Rally for Madagascar's Muslim Democrats was registered as the country's first Islamic political party. There are no limitations on academic freedom.
The right to freedom of assembly is generally respected, and hundreds of nongovernmental organizations, including lawyers' and human rights groups, are active. As has been evidenced by various interest group advocacy efforts over a wide variety of issues, political and civic organizations do exercise their right to affect the public policy process. These activities are usually permitted by the government; however, the chairman of a group named the Organization of Families of People Detained Following the Current Political Crisis was arrested on suspicion of having participated in election-related violence in 2002.
Workers' rights to join unions and to strike are exercised frequently. Some of the country's labor organizations are affiliated with political groups. More than four-fifths of the labor force is employed in agriculture, fishing, and forestry at subsistence wages.
A lack of training, resources, and personnel hampers judicial effectiveness, and case backlogs are prodigious. Most of the 20,000 people held in the country's prisons are pretrial detainees, who suffer extremely harsh conditions. In many rural areas, customary law courts that follow neither due process nor standardized judicial procedure often issue summary and severe punishments.
With the stated intent of reestablishing a rule of law, President Marc Ravalomanana has sought to arrest and prosecute individuals who were involved in acts of "terrorism" and killings during the 2002 crisis. Most of these people were pro-Ratsiraka and cotiers - coastal peoples mostly of mixed (Malayo-Polynesian, Arab, and African) descent or of black African origin.
Ravalomanana's opponents say the government is cracking down on them for political motives and that the legal system is biased against them. A report by Amnesty International has identified some instances of detention without trial and arbitrary arrest. Pro-government supporters say, however, that those who sought to undermine the country's democracy and promote ethnic and regional discord should not be immune from legal sanctions.
Race and ethnicity are important factors in Madagascar's politics. Its mostly very poor population is divided between highland Merina people of Malay origin and the cotiers. Approximately 45 percent of the workforce is female. Malagasy women hold significantly more government and managerial positions than women in continental African countries. At the same time, they still face societal discrimination and enjoy fewer opportunities than men for higher education and official employment.