Freedom in the World
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Madagascar received a downward trend arrow due to the accretion of presidential powers, partly through an April 2007 referendum and the consolidation of an economic oligarchy linked to the current president.
A constitutional referendum in April 2007 increased presidential powers and made English an official language. President Marc Ravalomanana’s authority was bolstered further in September, when his I Love Madagascar party won 106 of the 127 seats in the National Assembly. Also during the year, a former opposition presidential candidate, Roland Ratsiraka, received an 18-month suspended prison sentence for embezzling public funds in a case many viewed as politically motivated.
After 70 years of French colonial rule and episodes of severe repression, Madagascar gained independence in 1960. A leftist military junta seized power 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, but he failed to win reelection after being impeached by the Supreme Court in 1996. Ratsiraka won a narrow victory in that year’s December 1996 presidential runoff election, which was deemed generally legitimate by international and domestic observers.
A decentralization plan was narrowly approved in a 1998 referendum amid a boycott by the country’s increasingly fractious opposition. 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 runoff vote. After considerable violence between supporters of the two rival candidates, the High Constitutional Court announced that Ravalomanana had indeed won the election in the first round. 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.” Local elections held in 2003 further strengthened Ravalomanana’s position.
Political tensions heightened in the run-up to the December 2006 presidential election, in which Ravalomanana secured a second term. While most observers agreed that the vote reflected the will of the Malagasy people, the campaign was marred by opposition claims of a biased administration and electoral irregularities, which, if not addressed, could jeopardize the legitimacy of future elections.
Ravalomanana’s authority was reinforced in 2007. A constitutional referendum in April increased presidential powers—in part by allowing the president to legislate by decree during a state of emergency—and made English an official language. In September legislative elections, TIM won 106 of the 127 seats in the National Assembly. Separately, Roland Ratsiraka, a nephew of the former president and one of Ravalomanana’s challengers in the 2006 presidential poll, was suspended from his post as mayor of Toamasina in February and arrested on embezzlement charges in a case that many viewed as politically motivated. He received a suspended 18-month prison sentence in October. Also during the year, tension mounted between the government and the Roman Catholic Church over the deportation of a Jesuit priest, and three cyclones struck the island causing major damage.
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 tourism industry.
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. Needed reforms include the establishment of an independent election commission, switching to a single-ballot system, and improving transparency in the voter registration process, especially in rural areas. Opposition parties, independent observers, and members of the diplomatic community criticized the government of President Marc Ravalomanana for failing to undertake these reforms prior to the 2006 presidential election.
The head of state is the president, who is directly elected to five-year terms. The 2007 constitutional referendum continued a trend of steadily growing presidential powers; among other provisions, it allowed the president to rule by decree during a state of emergency and abolished autonomous provinces. 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 provincial officials, and the rest are appointed 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 National Assembly.
Approximately 150 parties are registered, although only a few have a national presence. Parties tend to suffer from internal divisions, shifting alliances, and a lack of clear ideology and resources. The ruling TIM is overwhelmingly the largest party represented in the National Assembly.
Some observers have expressed concerns about the extent of and trends in corruption in Madagascar. According to the World Bank 2007 Governance Matters study, while corruption has increased somewhat in recent years, Madagascar remains one of the better performers in Africa. It was ranked 94 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 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. He 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.
According to government sources, in June 2007 there were 245 licensed radio stations, 12 registered daily newspapers and 37 licensed television stations. Because of the low literacy rate, the print media are mostly aimed at the French-speaking urban elite. 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 encourages, but does not require, religious organizations to register with the Ministry of Interior. In 2007, relations between the state and the Roman Catholic Church deteriorated due to the deportation of a Jesuit priest who had long resided in Madagascar. The Church also critiqued the haste with which the April constitutional referendum was held and the intimidation of opposition political figures. 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 and association 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 lack due process often issue summary and severe punishments. The UN Commission for Social Development in 2007 determined that “Madagascar had in recent years enhanced human rights legislation, and reformed its legal and prison systems, but that problems remain with wrongful detentions and lack of an independent judiciary.”
A political cleavage has traditionally existed between the coastal cotier and the highland merina peoples, of continental African and Southeast Asian origins, respectively. Due to past military conquest and long-standing political dominance, the status of the merina tends to be higher than that of the cotier. 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.