Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Madagascar’s political rights rating declined from 3 to 4 due to irregularities during the presidential elections, including the disqualification of an opposition candidate and the use of multiple ballots.
Incumbent president Marc Ravalomanana won reelection, in a crowded field of contenders, to a second five-year term in December 2006. While most observers agreed that the vote reflected the will of the Malagasy people, the campaign was marred by opposition claims of biased administration and electoral irregularities, which, if not addressed, raise concerns for the legitimacy of future elections.
Madagascar, the world’s fourth-largest island, lies approximately 250 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 Philibert 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 election with more than 65 percent of the vote. He 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 previous polls. The Malagasy Council of Christian Churches and several political groups noted that the balloting was 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 independent candidates. Elections were held in December 2000 for provincial councils, 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, having refused 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. The incumbent, 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, and Ravalomanana’s I Love Madagascar (TIM) party won a large majority. 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 have been linked to growing frustration over ongoing 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 late 2003.
Madagascar enjoyed a relatively peaceful year in 2005, especially compared with the previous years of political uncertainty and protest. Positive economic reform policies and good governance resulted in increased support from international financial institutions and individual donor countries. A leading opposition figure, former deputy prime minister Pierrot Rajaonarivelo, who had been convicted of corruption and sentenced in absentia to five years in prison in 2003, had his sentence reduced to three years. However, he received a separate, 15-year sentence in August 2006. His supporters maintained that the prosecutions were politically motivated.
Political tensions heightened in 2006 in the run-up to Ravalomanana’s reelection bid. Speaker of the National Assembly Jean Lahiniriko was expelled from TIM and removed from his post after finding himself at odds with the party and expressing support for Iran’s nuclear program; he later ran for president as an independent candidate. Rajaonarivelo attempted to return to Madagascar to run for president, but he was ruled ineligible by the High Constitutional Court after the government barred him from entering the country. An international preelection assessment mission cited serious concerns about the use of multiple ballots, the role of government authorities in electoral administration, the voter registration and vote tabulation processes, and limited access to media by opposition parties and candidates. Ravalomanana successfully secured a second five-year term in the December balloting, taking about 55 percent of the vote in the first round. Lahiniriko placed second with nearly 12 percent.
In recent years, Madagascar has experienced overall economic growth, though 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, which are 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, having determined that the country was making progress in poverty reduction and public expenditure management.
Madagascar is an electoral democracy. However, the 2001 presidential election demonstrated that peaceful democratic succession is not yet fully enshrined in the country’s political culture. The 2006 election represented an improvement, but further advances could be made by reforming the election administration structure, switching to a multiple ballot system, and improving transparency in the voter registration process, especially in rural areas.
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 chosen by an electoral college, and the rest 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.
Some observers have expressed concerns about the extent of and trends in corruption in Madagascar. It was ranked 84 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution provides for freedom of the press. A 1990 Law on Press Freedom was followed by the creation of privately owned FM radio stations and more critical political reporting by the print media. However, subsequent governments have at times curbed press freedom in practice. Some current officials, for example, reportedly have sought to limit critical media coverage of alleged government malfeasance. State radio and television came under the control of President Ravalomanana in March 2002 during his contested electoral victory over incumbent 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 Ravalomanana supporters.
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-speaking urban elite. Some formerly pro-Ratsiraka radio stations, which operated like “hate radio” during the 2001–2002 presidential election crisis, subsequently switched to more mainstream programming formats. Internet use, although not widespread, is becoming more popular.
While the Malagasy people have traditionally enjoyed religious freedom, in late 2005, the government shut down a popular Protestant charismatic church that was winning followers from the more traditional Protestant movement, to which Ravalomanana belongs. 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 and 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. Interest groups have conducted advocacy efforts on a wide variety of issues, and political and civic organizations generally exercise their right to affect the public policy process without government interference.
Workers’ rights to join unions and to strike are exercised freely. In 2005, for example, the judges’ union went on strike. The Ravalomanana administration has endured a series of demonstrations and work stoppages, 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 a subsistence level.
A lack of training, resources, and personnel hampers judicial effectiveness, and case backlogs are prodigious. The judiciary 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-threatening 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. Due to past military conquest and long-standing 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 of Asian descent, while many of the latter have African origins. As a result of these disparities, 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. However, they still face societal discrimination and enjoy fewer opportunities than men for higher education and employment.