Hoping for fair, transparent, uncontroversial elections

As campaigning for December polls gets underway throughout the island, Madagascar has the opportunity to show it can hold presidential elections that work. The polls are key to Madagascar's recovery after the last election in 2001, which descended into violence that split the country.

"The efforts of the government and the support of the international community have afforded Madagascar the opportunity to recover. A second failed presidential election would leave lingering doubts, with long-term political and economic impacts," warned Richard Marcus, Madagascar country expert for Swiss based Early Analysis of Tensions and Fact-finding (FAST), an early warning programme funded by a cosortium of of development agencies.

In 2001 current president Marc Ravalomanana and the incumbent, Didier Ratsiraka, both claimed victory. Ratsiraka supporters tried to blockade the capital, Antananarivo, which was pro-Ravalomanana, but after a recount in April 2002, Madagascar's High Constitutional Court (HCC) pronounced Ravalomanana president. There was an uneasy stalemate until Ratsiraka fled the country in July and Ravalomanana finally took control of the country.

"It is really important for Madagascar to organise transparent, objective, free and fair elections, and to avoid contestation of results. That is why the international community is supporting the electoral process," said Bouri Sanhouidi, the United Nations (UN) Resident Coordinator.

The HCC has approved 13 presidential hopefuls to challenge Ravalomanana in the voting on 3 December. Unless a single candidate takes over 50 percent, a second round run-off between the top two contenders will follow.

AN UNEASY RUN-UP

Some candidates have already questioned the election's legitimacy: "Eight candidates want to demand postponement of the election. Instead of campaigning they say they will demand a new date is set for the election," Solofo Randrianja, professor of Political History at the University of Toamasina, told IRIN.

Tension also rose in October when opposition candidate and former Deputy Prime Minister, Pierrot Rajaonarivelo, was twice denied entry into Madagascar from exile in France to register his candidacy.

Officials closed the airport to international flights in the eastern city of Toamasina, preventing Rajaonarivelo from returning. His second attempt to enter the country was frustrated when officials on the neighbouring Indian Ocean island of Mauritius barred him from boarding a plane, after Malagasy officials said he posed a security risk. Rajaonarivelo faces corruption charges after serving in former President Didier Ratsiraka's AREMA party government.

Rajaonarivelo appealed his exclusion to the HCC, who rejected his appeal on technical grounds, saying that the wrong government official had witnessed the signature of Rajaonarivelo's attorney on the application form.

CONVINCING THE ELECTORATE

National Reconciliation is a key election issue. "Supporters of national reconciliation see a rift in Malagasy political culture and, for some, Malagasy identity. They hope to heal that rift through a transitional government that includes power sharing and amnesty for those involved in 2002. President Ravalomanana opposes all of the above, as it of course means diminishing his earlier victory, reducing his influence, and challenging his reforms," Marcus said.

Some observers fear there will always be those who fall back on ethnicity to exploit the longstanding divide between Merina (those hailing from the highlands) and Cotier (people from the coastal areas), which continues to be of great importance in social and political competition.

According to Sanhouidi, "All candidates know this [ethnicity] is a very dangerous issue and seem very ... [anxious] to avoid it - at least for the time being."

Development and poverty reduction top campaign agendas. Despite indications that the population, especially in the capital, has seen progress in health, security, infrastructure and education, most candidates are critical of the government's performance. "In spite of the roads, hospitals, new schools and everything else realised by the current regime, poverty is still there," Randrianja said.

"My impression is that most people would say that it is better, but not enough and not to the degree that Ravalomanana promised," Marcus said. Recent price hikes for rice, the staple food, and fuel have added to the dissatisfaction.

According to World Bank statistics based on household surveys, poverty deepened from 69.7 percent in 2001 to 80 percent in 2002 (seen as the peak of the crisis) and then lifted to 68.7 percent in 2005.

Mineral wealth and oil extraction sectors will need to be developed if the poor are to benefit from recent oil discoveries. Global Witness, an anti-corruption watchdog, has cautioned that the windfall could challenge the island's fledgling democracy, and spokesman Gavin Hayman warned that "government officials in Madagascar may be tempted into murky deals that may never benefit the millions of poor people."

According to Marcus, other challenges include "not only ensuring development advances, but ensuring the perception of development advances and improving governance - this includes continuing and expanding the fight against corruption."

INTERNATIONAL SUPPORT

"They are not on the minds of the [electorate], but there have been some important changes in making Madagascar an international actor: Joining SADC [Southern African Development Community], acceptance by the AU [African Union], a higher profile in the region and even the UN, increased state visits by the president, and massive donor support both in spirit and in funding - Madagascar has a lot of good will at this moment in the international community. This is easy to squander and critical that it isn't," he warned.

International donors are investing to help ensure a credible election: the European Union (EU) has pledged US$3.75 million, Norway is contributing $1 million and Japan has pledged to provide the ministry of the interior, which is in charge of the electoral process, with $1.1 million. The United States (US) will contribute $1.1 million to support civic education and observation, and China is donating 20 computers, office material and 600 bicycles.

To counter fraud, $1.5 million of the EU funding has been set aside to develop a single computerised list of voters, as opposed to various handwritten lists. "The lists will be sent to the districts and individuals, and civil society will be encouraged to check it so that everyone is on it and there are no double names," Sanhouidi said.

However, fraud will remain a challenge: "if the incumbent president wins, other candidates will contest the results, saying there is fraud," Randrianja predicted.

"Several opposition candidates have made it clear that if Marc Ravalomanana wins it is ... a sign that the elections are not credible. This was, of course, Ravalomanana's argument in early 2002. It is therefore of great importance that the majority of the population sees this election as credible and transparent," Marcus said.

To ensure that the elections run smoothly and results are credible and indisputable, international election observer missions will monitor the polls and their preparation. "At the request of the [Malagasy] government, the EU and individual EU countries, together with Norway and Switzerland, will send 50 observers," Sanhouidi said. "But the bulk of the observers will come from a local base, supported by donors through civil society and NGOs."

The International Organisation of Francophone Countries, the Indian Ocean Commission, which encourages cooperation between Indian Ocean islands, the AU, the SADC, the US and Japan will also send electoral observers.

Holding an election on the island, where over 18 million people are spread over nearly 600,000 sq. km, is not without challenges. "It is a huge country with very remote areas that are difficult to access," Sanhouidi pointed out. Around 17,600 polling stations are being set up to accommodate 6.9 million registered voters.

Nevertheless, observers remained upbeat. According to Marcus, "The elections will be more transparent and there is (2005) survey data supporting what almost anyone in the street will tell you today: people are tired and don't want conflict."

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