Freedom in the World
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Madagascar enjoyed a relatively peaceful year in 2005, especially compared with the tumultuous years of political uncertainty and protest following contested presidential elections in 2001. Positive economic reform policies and governance resulted in increased support from international financial institutions and bilateral donor countries.
Madagascar, the world's fourth-largest island, lies 220 miles off Africa's southeastern coast. A political cleavage has traditionally existed between the coastal cotier and the highland merina peoples, of continental African and Southeast Asian origins, respectively. 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 Didier 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 a new constitution, opposition leader Albert Zafy won the 1992 presidential elections 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.
Legislative elections in May 1998 were viewed as more problematic than preceding polls since 1992. The Malagasy Council of Christian Churches and several political groups 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 boycotted by the country's increasingly fractious opposition. November 1999 municipal polls resulted in overall success for independent candidates. 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.
In the December 2001 presidential election, opposition candidate Marc Ravalomanana claimed that he had been denied an outright victory by polling irregularities. He declared himself president in February 2002 after refusing to take part in a postponed second-round runoff vote. 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. Incumbent President Ratsiraka refused to acknowledge the result. Sporadic clashes 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 held in 2003 further strengthened 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 that resulted in numerous injuries and arrests were 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, and an attempt by opposition parties to have the law adopted failed in late 2003.
A leading opposition figure, former deputy prime minister Pierrot Rajaonarivelo, who had been convicted of corruption in absentia and sentenced to five years in jail in 2003, had his sentence reduced to three years in 2005. His supporters claim that the legal proceedings were politically motivated.
In recent years, Madagascar has experienced overall economic growth, although the World Bank estimates that per capita income is still only around $300. Poverty and the competition for agricultural land have put pressure on the island's dwindling forests, home to much of Madagascar's unique wildlife and key to its nascent tourist industry. Multilateral and bilateral donors, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), are active in Madagascar. In late 2005, the IMF announced that it would extend 100 percent debt relief to Madagascar, under its Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative, once the IMF determines that the country is making progress in poverty reduction and public expenditure management.
Citizens of Madagascar can change their government demo-cratically. However, the most recent presidential election, in 2001, demonstrates that this right is not yet fully enshrined in the country's political culture. The head of state is the president, who is 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 serving six-year terms. Two-thirds of the senators are elected by an electoral college, and the remainder are nominated by the president. The president has the power to appoint or dismiss the prime minister, who may come from a party that has a minority of seats in the Assembly.
Approximately 150 parties are registered amid a welter of shifting political alliances, although only a few have a national presence. Parties tend to suffer from internal divisions and a lack of clear ideology and resources. The largest parties represented in the National Assembly are TIM, with 103 seats, and the opposition National Front (SPDUN), with 22 seats.
Madagascar was ranked 97 out of 159 countries in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
While there are constitutional provisions for press freedom, the government has limited these in practice. Some government officials reportedly have sought to limit critical media coverage of alleged government malfeasance. National state radio and TV came under the control of President Marc Ravalomanana in March 2002 during his contested electoral victory over incumbent Didier Ratsiraka. Ravalomanana also owns the private Malagasy Broadcasting System, which operates the MBS TV and Radio MBS networks. Many private radio stations in the capital are owned by pro-Ravalomanana politicians. A boom in privately owned FM radio stations and more critical political reporting by the print media followed the 1990 Law on Press Freedom.
Madagascar has six daily newspapers and a number of weeklies and monthlies. Because of the low literacy rate, the print media are mostly aimed at the French-speak-ing urban elite. Some formerly pro-Ratsiraka radio stations, which operated like "hate radio" during the most recent presidential election crisis, subsequently switched to more mainstream forms of broadcasting. Internet use, although not widespread, is becoming more popular.
In 2005, Reporters Without Borders expressed concern about several actions infringing on freedom of the press. These included prison sentences handed down in separate libel cases against the publisher of the independent daily La Gazette de la Grande Ile, the closure of three privately owned radio stations in the port city of Toamasina after the broadcasting of statements by opposition figures, and the forced departure from the country of the Radio France Internationale correspondent.
While the Malagasy people have traditionally enjoyed religious freedom, in late 2005, Madagascar's government shut down a popular Protestant charismatic church that was winning followers from the more traditional Protestant movement, of which Ravalomanana is an adherent. The law strongly recommends, but does not require, religious organizations to register with the Ministry of Interior. More than half of the population belong to traditional Malagasy religions, which coexist with Christians and Muslims. There are no limitations on academic freedom.
The right to freedom of assembly is generally respected, and hundreds of nongovernmental organizations, including legal 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.
Workers' rights to join unions and to strike are exercised without interference. In 2005, the judges' union went on strike. The Ravalomanana administration has endured a series of demonstrations and strikes, mainly over the high rate of inflation. Some of the country's labor organizations are affiliated with political groups. More than 80 percent of workers are employed in agriculture, fishing, and forestry at subsistence wages.
A lack of training, resources, and personnel hampers judicial effectiveness, and case backlogs are prodigious. The judiciary is inefficient and remains susceptible to corruption and executive influence. Most of the 20,000 people held in the country's prisons are pretrial detainees, who suffer extremely harsh and sometimes life-threat-ening conditions. In many rural areas, customary law courts that follow neither due process nor standardized judicial procedure often issue summary and severe punishments.
Race and ethnicity are important factors in Madagascar's politics. Through military conquest and political dominance, the status of the merina (highland people) tends to be higher than that of the cotier (coastal people). The former tend to be more of Asian descent than the latter, whose origins are more African-based. This disparity has formed the basis of tension between the two groups. As a result, ethnicity, caste, and regional solidarity often are factors that lead to discrimination.
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 employment.