So far, so good in presidential election

Only inclement weather disrupted Madagascar's first round of presidential elections on Sunday, but it also helped to defuse one of the few election-related disturbances.

"I am very, very proud to see the Malagasy wisdom. It is a big challenge for us, in Madagascar, to organise democratic, free and transparent elections. Thank you, Malagasy people!" incumbent president Marc Ravalomanana told the media after voting at a polling station in the capital, Antananarivo.

Fears that the presidential poll might rekindle the political animosities of the previous presidential election, which plunged the island into a near civil war, have so far proved unfounded.

About seven million registered voters - around 800,000 more than participated in the disputed 2001 election - had a choice of 14 presidential candidates, although Ravalomanana, 57, a "self-made man" who began his career as a milkman before becoming one of the country’s richest businessman and the mayor of the capital, remained the favourite for a second presidential term.

If one candidate does not obtain more than 50 percent of the vote, a second round run-off between the top two contenders will follow. But most analysts believe Ravalomanana will secure the required mandate in the first round of voting, which was overseen by 14,000 local and 150 international observers.

According to the National Electoral Council (CNE), the organisation charged with running the elections under the authority of the Ministry of Interior, there were few election-related disturbances. On Saturday, in Fianarantsoa, 400km south of Antananarivo, a group supporting one of the "small" presidential candidates attempted to block the main road to prevent people from voting the next day, but the rain eventually made them leave. In Toliara, in the southwest, disgruntled voters protested by burning a ballot box on election day because they had not received their electoral cards.

The accuracy of the new computerised electoral lists preoccupied political and civil society in the weeks prior to the poll.

Some polling stations in the capital closed later than scheduled because of the heavy rain. "The most important thing is the calm and serenity in which this election took place; it is good to note that Malagasy people went out in numbers to go to vote in Antananarivo, despite the rain," said United Nations resident coordinator Bouri Sanhouidi.

Partial results, published a few hours after the 17,500 voting stations closed, showed Ravalomanana leading in Antananarivo with about 70 percent of the votes, while his closest rival, Norbert Lala Ratsirahonana, a former prime minister and long-time opponent of former president Didier Ratsiraka, captured about 10 percent of the vote in the capital.

Herizo Razafimahaleo, a businessman and former deputy prime minister from Fianarantsoa, was in third place with 7 percent; Roland Ratsiraka, a nephew of former president Ratsiraka and mayor of Toamasina, the second largest city and the Madagascar's main port on the east coast, was ranked fourth with about 5 percent. The remaining candidates shared between 0 and 2 percent of the ballot.

All the candidates IRIN tried to reach on Monday were unavailable for comment.

The first indications of voting trends in the provinces also gave Ravalomanana a commanding lead, with the tally varying between roughly 50 percent and 70 percent.

The apparently overwhelming support for Ravalomanana is seen by analysts as a hangover of the 2001 election, in which Ravalomanana and the then presidential incumbent, Didier Ratsiraka, both claimed victory. Ratsiraka's supporters blockaded the capital, which was Ravalomanana's heartland, while Ravalomanana supporters staged huge demonstrations that paralysed the country. The crisis, sometimes violent, lasted eight months until a recount in April 2002 ended the standoff, but it was not until July that Ratsiraka fled into exile in France and Ravalomanana could take control of the country.

"People are still traumatised by the 2002 events, and even if many of them, especially in urban areas, are being deceived because their living conditions deteriorated despite all the promises, they don't want to experience another crisis. Moreover, none of the candidates is seen as a serious challenger," said a diplomat in Madagascar.

Pierrot Rajaonarivelo, Ratsiraka's former deputy prime minister, who is seen as a possible threat to Ravalomanana's second term, was twice denied entry into Madagascar from exile in France in October to register his candidacy. Authorities said Rajaonarivelo, facing charges of corruption, posed a security risk.

Ravalomanana's achievements in his first term of office, such as the rehabilitation of roads, schools and health centres, have been lauded, but inflation, the weakening of the local currency, the Ariary, and the rise in fuel prices and the cost of rice, a staple food, have weighed most heavily on the poorest. Madagascar is rated as the ninth poorest country in the world and the UN estimates that 85 percent of its 18 million people live on two dollars or less a day.

"Life is harder now than before, because food is more expensive and we don't eat roads. But maybe roads will make us eat one day, and we can't afford another crisis, so I vote for Ravalomanana to keep on developing the country," a teacher in the capital, who declined to be named, told IRIN while waiting to cast his vote.

The CNE said final results of the ballot should be known by 23 December.

"Ravalomanana is not ready, psychologically, to go to a second round, and his supporters are deeply convinced that he will win at the first round, like in 2002. But his opponents argue that with the number of candidates, it is impossible for him to win at the first round, adding that such a victory would indicate a fraud, especially with all the mistakes on the electoral list. They warned they would contest the results if this was to happen," a local political analyst told IRIN.

Malagasy authorities said that if a second round of voting were required, it would be expected to take place before the end of January 2007.

Al/go/he/oa