Ratsiraka on his way out, say analysts

Facing imminent military defeat, former Madagascan president Didier Ratsiraka on Tuesday called for an internationally guaranteed ceasefire, sparking speculation that the reign of one of Africa's longest rulers has finally come to an end.

As forces loyal to President Marc Ravalomanana advanced to the northern province of Antsiranana, one of two provinces still under Ratsiraka's control, the veteran leader appealed to his arch rival to "stop all aggressive acts by his troops".

If defeated, Ratsiraka's area of control will be limited to the eastern port of Tamatave, where he commands most of his support and set up a rival capital to Antananarivo.

Reports from Antananrivo on Monday said that the ongoing battles in the north had forced residents to flee to neighbouring Mayotte island, "in an attempt to find ways and means of going to Reunion and France", local newspaper, L'Express said.

The apparent volte-face of the embattled leader, some analysts said, was an indication of his tenuous grip on political and military power on the island.

On his return from France two weeks ago, Ratsiraka insisted that he remained the island's legitimate president which triggered sporadic clashes on the eastern coast of the island's northern peninsula.

Ratsiraka's spokesman Jose Andrianoelison, told IRIN: "Mr Ratsiraka's gesture is simply to avoid further bloodshed of Malagasy people. The president [Ratsiraka] wants to return the country to some kind of normalcy."

But, Ratsiraka's attempt to extend an olive branch to his political rival may have come a little too late, according to pundits. They said the window of reconciliation between the two warring parties had closed after Ratsiraka reneged on proposals put forward by the international community.

Key to the several diplomatic attempts to break the six-month long political stalemate was the lifting of the barricades around Antananarivo which Ratsiraka's supporters set up to starve the capital of fuel and other essentials.

Political analyst at the University of Madagascar, Didier Ramakavelo, told IRIN: "Ratsiraka is in a Catch-22 situation. If he abandons the fight for the presidency, he risks losing all credibility among his followers. If on the other hand, he is defeated by Ravalomanana's troops, he risks facing charges of treason."

Ratsiraka denied claims by Ravalomanana's aides that he had hired two teams of mercenaries to assassinate Ravalomanana at independence day celebrations last week.

"It is unlikely that Ratsiraka will play any kind of role in Malagasy politics in the future. More likely is that he will retire to Paris," Ramakavelo added.

Ratsiraka, once a major political ally of western countries, was dealt a severe diplomatic blow last week after the United States officially endorsed Ravalomanana as president. Adding insult to injury the national secretary of his own political party Arema, Pierrot Rajaonarivelo, announced his recognition of Ravalomanana's government and offered to be part of a government of national unity.

Since the disputed 16 December elections Ratsiraka's control has been seriously under threat, when then presidential candidate Ravalomanana, claimed the poll had been rigged. The official tally gave Ravalomanana victory, but below the 50 percent needed to avoid a second round run-off.

Thousands of people took to the streets in February in support of the millionaire mayor who had promised to "clean up" the country and reduce poverty.

The country's High Constitutional Court in April declared Ravalomanana the winner with an overall majority.

A flurry of international intervention failed to bring about a peaceful resolution to the protracted crisis that has severely impacted on the country's fragile economy.

A UN Development Programme report on the impact the crisis has had on the country and its people said that the projected poverty rate this year had been 65 percent. It was now expected to fall back to the 1997 rate of 73 percent.

"This report is a United Nations' contribution to the situation assessment and will serve as a guideline for an eventual economic recovery plan," said UNDP Resident Representative Adama Guindo.

The study added that industrial output had fallen by 13 percent since March, with production for export by companies in the duty free zone falling 22 percent.

"The agricultural sector remains largely unscathed, though roadblocks slowed the movement of goods and farm revenues are down because families have less money to buy goods. If the crisis continues, already difficult living conditions in rural areas will deteriorate," the report said.

The study also showed that the government faced an economic squeeze, with revenues down by US $66 million between January and April, mainly because customs checkpoints were not working and businesses were unable to pay taxes.