Freedom in the World
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While Madagascar was buffeted by three cyclones in 2008, the political environment was relatively calm. Local elections in December 2007 had effectively confirmed the dominant role of President Marc Ravalomanana and his I Love Madagascar party, although a political rival was elected as mayor of Antananarivo.
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 retained 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. However, he failed to win reelection after being impeached by the Supreme Court in 1996. Ratsiraka won that year’s 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 and Antananarivo mayor 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 his and Ratsiraka’s supporters, the High Constitutional Court announced that Ravalomanana had indeed won the election in the first round. 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 seriously damaged the Malagasy economy.
Ravalomanana’s I Love Madagascar (TIM) party won a large majority in the December 2002 parliamentary elections. Observers from the European Union said the conduct of the polls was “generally positive.” Local elections held in 2003 strengthened Ravalomanana’s position. Political tensions increased 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 people, the campaign was marred by opposition claims of a biased administration and electoral irregularities.
A constitutional referendum in April 2007 increased presidential powers and made English an official language, among other changes. Ravalomanana’s authority was bolstered again in September, when his TIM party won 106 of the 127 seats in the National Assembly. Also during the year, Roland Ratsiraka, a nephew of the former president and a candidate in the 2006 presidential election, received an 18-month suspended prison sentence for embezzling public funds after a prosecution that many viewed as politically motivated. Local elections in December 2007 largely confirmed TIM’s dominance, but Andry Rajoelina, a young and charismatic opposition candidate won the mayoral race in the capital.
Madagascar was hit by three cyclones in 2008. One of the storms, Ivan, struck the island in February, killing roughly 100 people and displacing 190,000 others. However, the political atmosphere was relatively calm during the year. President Ravalomanana explicitly stated in January that he would not seek a constitutional revision to allow a third presidential term. Two-thirds of the Senate was elected by regional councils in April; all seats were won by supporters of President Ravalomanana. Separately, a key opposition figure, Herizo Razafimahaleo, died of natural causes in July.
Madagascar has experienced overall economic growth in recent years, due in part to large mining projects, but the World Bank estimates that annual per capita income is still only around $300. Poverty and demand for agricultural land have put pressure on the island’s forests, which are home to much of Madagascar’s unique wildlife and essential to its nascent tourism industry. However, satellite imagery shows that deforestation has fallen to 0.1 percent of existing forest per year, from 0.8 percent in the 1990s.
Madagascar is an electoral democracy. However, the violence that followed the 2001 presidential election served as a reminder that peaceful democratic succession is not yet enshrined in the country’s political culture. Opposition parties, independent observers, and members of the diplomatic community criticized the government of President Marc Ravalomanana for failing to enact necessary reforms—including the establishment of an independent electoral commission, the adoption of a single-ballot system, and improved transparency in voter registration, particularly in rural areas—prior to the 2006 presidential election.
The president is directly elected for up to two five-year terms. The 2007 constitutional referendum continued a trend of steadily increasing presidential power; among other provisions, it allows 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 127 members directly elected to four-year terms. The upper chamber, the Senate, has 33 members serving four-year terms. Two-thirds of the senators are chosen by provincial lawmakers, 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 resources and clear ideology. The ruling TIM party has an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly and Senate.
Some observers have expressed concerns about the extent of and trends in corruption in Madagascar. According to the World Bank’s 2007 Governance Matters study, while corruption has increased somewhat in recent years, Madagascar remains one of the better performers in Africa. It was ranked 85 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution provides for freedom of the press. A 1990 law on press freedom was followed by the introduction 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 have reportedly sought to limit media coverage of alleged government malfeasance. In addition to his control of the state media, Ravalomanana owns the private Malagasy Broadcasting System, which operates television and radio networks. Furthermore, many private radio stations in the capital are owned by Ravalomanana supporters. In 2008 the government permitted two radio stations affiliated with opposition leaders to return to the air after suspensions. According to government sources, in 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. According to the International Telecommunications Union, by the end of 2007 there were 110,000 internet users.
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. Relations between the state and the Roman Catholic Church were strained in 2007, partly due to the deportation of a Jesuit priest who had long resided in Madagascar. More than half of the country’s residents belong to traditional Malagasy religions. There are no limitations on academic freedom.
Freedoms of assembly and association are 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. 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 engaged 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 approximately 20,000 people held in the country’s prisons are pretrial detainees and 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.
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. 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.