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Madagascar’s protracted political crisis appeared to draw closer to a resolution in September 2011, when all but one of the main political stakeholders signed an amended “road map” to elections within one year. The agreement called for de facto president Andry Rajoelina—who had taken power after a 2009 military coup—to lead a transitional government until the elections. It also stipulated that former president Marc Ravalomanana, who had been living in exile under threat of arrest, be permitted to return to Madagascar “unconditionally,” though he had yet to return to the country at year’s end.
After 70 years of French colonial rule and episodes of severe repression, Madagascar gained independence in 1960. A member of the leftist military junta that seized power in 1972, 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. Following Zafy’s impeachment by the National Assembly 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 2001 presidential election, opposition candidate and Antananarivo mayor Marc Ravalomanana claimed that he had been denied an outright victory in the first round due to polling irregularities. He declared himself president in February 2002, having refused to take part in a postponed runoff against Ratsiraka. After considerable violence between supporters of the two candidates, the High Constitutional Court announced that Ravalomanana had indeed won in the first round, but Ratsiraka refused to acknowledge the result. Sporadic clashes continued until July 2002, when Ratsiraka left the country. The crisis seriously damaged the Malagasy economy.
Ravalomanana’s party, I Love Madagascar (TIM), won a large majority in the 2002 parliamentary elections. Observers from the European Union (EU) said the conduct of the polls was generally positive. Political tensions increased in the run-up to the 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 Ravalomanana’s authority was bolstered again in the September parliamentary elections, in which TIM won 106 of the 127 seats. Andry Rajoelina, a young and charismatic opposition candidate, won the mayoral race in the capital, Antananarivo, in December.
In December 2008, the government closed a television station run by Rajoelina, triggering months of violent protests in Antananarivo. Well over 100 people were killed as protesters destroyed property and marched on government sites, and police responded with gunfire. Rajoelina called on Ravalomanana to resign and declared himself president. The political crisis deepened in early 2009, with some army officers announcing their support for the opposition. In March, Ravalomanana handed power to the military, which quickly transferred it to Rajoelina.
Rajoelina proceeded to suspend the parliament, suppress opposition protests, and limit press freedom. These actions, combined with his unconstitutional accession to power and erratic leadership, resulted in prolonged political uncertainty. In August 2009, the various political factions backing Rajoelina reached a tentative power-sharing deal—brokered by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and known as the Maputo Declaration—with former presidents Ravalomanana, Zafy, and Ratsiraka. However, Rajoelina later refused to agree to the formation of a transitional coalition government of national unity, as called for in the pact. Subsequent internationally mediated deals were reached but also collapsed.
In August 2010, Rajoelina announced that he was abandoning the power-sharing agreement. He instead concluded an accord with 99 minor parties and set the presidential poll for May 2011. While Rajoelina stated that he would not stand for the presidency, the main opposition parties and SADC refused to endorse his plan, citing the Maputo Declaration’s call for a coalition government to oversee the electoral process. The political climate became further polarized after Ravalomanana, who was living in exile in South Africa, was sentenced in absentia in August to life with hard labor for ordering the killing of at least 30 opposition protesters in February 2009. A national conference sponsored by Rajoelina that was designed to provide an internal solution to the crisis took place in September 2010. It was boycotted by the major opposition parties and did not have the support of the international community. Rajoelina appointed a transitional parliament in October, with some members of the opposition included. In a November referendum boycotted by the opposition, voters approved constitutional changes sought by Rajoelina, including a lowering of the minimum age for the president from 40 to 35. (Rajoelina turned 37 in May 2011.) Continuing unrest within the military led to an unsuccessful coup attempt in November, triggered by the constitutional referendum.
Nevertheless, internationally mediated talks continued, and by March 2011, SADC had shifted its stance, backing a plan that allowed Rajoelina to be recognized as Madagascar’s interim president until elections, as long as the opposition was fairly represented in the transitional administration. However, the main opposition parties rejected the plan when Rajoelina reappointed his ally, General Camille Vital, as prime minster, and continued to prevent Ravalomanana from returning from exile. After sustained pressure by SADC and the EU, an amended road map was initialed in September by all the main parties except Ratsiraka. The deal legitimized Rajoelina as Madagascar’s interim president, provided for the unconditional return of Ravalomanana, called for elections to be held within one year and a transitional administration that included all parties to lead the country to the elections, and urged the passage of an amnesty law for those accused of political crimes. Rajoelina named Omer Beriziky consensus prime minister in late October, and supporters of Ravalomanana and Zafy in November agreed to join a 35-member unity cabinet. In December, Rajoelina appointed a transitional parliament that included supporters of all signatories of the road map. However, Ravalomanana had yet to return by the end of 2011; some Rajoelina supporters threatened to arrest him if he did, while others pledged to respect the road map.
The 2009 coup and ensuing political crisis seriously damaged Madagascar’s economy. Following Rajoelina’s takeover, the international community—including the EU and the African Union—levied severe sanctions on the country, but continued to provide humanitarian aid. The September 2011 agreement, if implemented in full, could allow for the lifting of sanctions and the renewal of EU aid.
Madagascar is not an electoral democracy. The undemocratic and unconstitutional manner in which Andry Rajoelina assumed the presidency in March 2009 demonstrated that the political culture has so far failed to incorporate a rules-based system and the practice of peaceful democratic succession. The 2007 constitutional referendum had continued a trend of steadily increasing presidential power. Among other provisions, it allowed the president to rule by decree during a state of emergency and abolished autonomous provinces. The elected bicameral parliament was suspended in March 2009. The transitional parliament appointed by Rajoelina in December 2011 was intended to remain in place until elections could be held.
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. Prior to the suspension of the parliament in 2009, ousted president Marc Ravalomanana’s TIM party had an overwhelming majority in both houses. Since Rajoelina’s accession to power, opposition political activity has been circumscribed through arbitrary and periodic bans on meetings and protests, killings of opposition supporters, and unsubstantiated government allegations of opposition party involvement in a series of explosions in Antananarivo in mid-2009. As part of the road map, members of the opposition participated in the transitional parliament. Prior to the September 2011 agreement, Rajoelina had consistently broken promises to include opposition members in the transitional cabinet.
Corruption remains a major concern in Madagascar. In spite of an April 2010 decree that prohibited the logging, transport, trading, and export of precious woods, the illegal trade continues. In May 2011, the Ministry of Environment announced that it had concluded a 30-day crackdown on illegal logging, seizing more than 1,000 rosewood logs and arresting seven members of a “logging mafia.” The World Bank in June approved $52 million for conservation projects in Madagascar, although the funds would be channeled through independent organizations, rather than Rajoelina’s government. Madagascar was ranked 100 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 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, Rajoelina’s transitional government has largely ignored these protections. During the early 2009 unrest, media outlets associated with each side were raided by security forces or ransacked by armed civilians, and a Ravalomanana-owned radio station was shut down by the authorities in April. The independent outlets that have remained in operation are subject to censorship, harassment, and intimidation by Rajoelina’s government and practice varying levels of self-censorship. Ten employees of the independent Radio Fahazavana were arrested in 2010 on charges of inciting revolt. They were released after four months in jail, but on the same day the authorities banned broadcasts by another independent radio station. There were no reports of journalists being attacked, arrested, or imprisoned in 2011.
The Malagasy people have traditionally enjoyed religious freedom though religious organizations are required to register with the Ministry of the Interior. There are no limitations on academic freedom.
Freedom of association is generally respected, and hundreds of nongovernmental organizations, including human rights groups, are active. Freedom of assembly was severely affected by the unrest in early 2009, as protests degenerated into riots and looting, and security forces opened fire on demonstrators. In March 2011, Ravalomanana accused Rajoelina’s security forces of arbitrary arrests of his supporters, as well as torture and detention without trial.
Workers’ rights to join unions and strike are largely respected. The Ravalomanana administration endured a series of demonstrations and work stoppages, mainly over the high rate of inflation. Strikes, often politically motivated, have continued under the Rajoelina regime. 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.
The judiciary remains susceptible to corruption and executive influence. Its acquiescence in the face of Rajoelina’s unconstitutional rise to power highlighted its weakness as an institution, and subsequent judicial decisions were tainted by frequent intimidation. A lack of training, resources, and personnel hampers judicial effectiveness, and case backlogs are prodigious. More than half of the approximately 20,000 people held in the country’s prisons are pretrial detainees and prisoners suffer from extremely harsh and sometimes life-threatening conditions. Customary-law courts in rural areas continue to lack due process guarantees and regularly issue summary and severe punishments. In the demonstrations and chaos surrounding the change in government in 2009, security forces often engaged in abusive behavior with impunity.
A political cleavage has traditionally existed between the coastal côtier 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 côtier. Ethnicity, caste, and regional solidarity are often factors that lead to discrimination.
Malagasy women hold significantly more government and managerial positions than women in many continental African countries. However, they still face societal discrimination and enjoy fewer opportunities than men for higher education and employment. Domestic violence remains common. The U.S. State Department’s 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report alleged that weakened rule of law under Rajoelina’s government has led to an increase in the number of Malagasy women and children trafficked to the Middle East for forced labor and sex work.