Madagascar managed to conduct the first round of an election to choose a new president, under terms set by the international community, in October. The successful conclusion of the final vote on 20 December should open the door to full international recognition once more.
The result of the 25 October first round is still subject to confirmation by the Special Electoral Court but there is little prospect of a significant adjustment to the provisional figures. The vote was peaceful with some minor concerns but local and international observers saw no reason to seriously question the free and fair nature of the contest. Turnout was a respectable 61.8 per cent.
Confrontation between the exiled former head of state Marc Ravalomanana and the transitional president who replaced him, Andry Rajoelina, has been the dominant theme of Malagasy politics ever since mass protests led to Rajoelina seizing power in the putsch of March 2009.
And now it is Dr Jean Louis Robinson, carrying the flag for the Ravalomanana camp, who will face his Rajoelina-backed rival, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, in next month’s run off. Robinson emerged at the head of the pack, with 21.1 per cent of the 4.5 million valid votes cast in the first round. Rajaonarimampianina got 15.9 per cent.
That the vote is taking place at all is a huge, positive step forward. Ever since the 2009 coup, the failure of Ravalomanana and Rajoelina to compromise over a route back to internationally recognized constitutional government has cost Madagascar dearly.
But the first round has revealed a substantially changed political landscape – and it is this that will shape the dynamics of the run-off contest over coming weeks.
Robinson depends substantially on support in the populous central highlands, where Ravalomanana’s Merina ethnic group predominates. Support for Rajaonarimampianina is more geographically scattered.
But the first round also highlighted the strength of several other candidates who are positioned to strike hard bargains for their support in the run-off.
Hajo Herivelona Andrianainarivelo, a former vice-premier for regional development, scored an impressive 10.5 per cent of the vote. Roland Ratsiraka – nephew of ex-president Didier – did almost as well on 9 per cent; he is particularly strong on the east coast, where he used to be mayor of the country’s second city and main port, Toamasina.
The Rajoelina camp will be comforted by the 6.9 per cent showing of Camille Vital, a prime minister during the transition; but Edgard Razafindavahy, the transitional regime's appointed mayor of the capital city, Antananarivo, got only 4.35 per cent.
He was pushed into sixth place by one of the two female contenders, Saraha Georget, the Green Party candidate. Her impressive 4.5 per cent of the vote may signal impatience with the old political class among sections of the young urban electorate.
Over coming weeks the two finalists will hope to win the support of all these and other eliminated contestants, in the race to assemble potential winning coalitions.
Rajaonarimampianina is thought to be better placed, because a number of the minor candidates were on good terms with the transitional authority. And his prospects should be boosted by the involvement of Rajoelina himself – who is leading the campaign for legislative seats, in the hope of becoming premier. But Robinson’s chances should not be written off.
After the past five grim years, disillusionment runs deep. During this time, and particularly in the period after the March 2009 coup, political battles have been fought to the brink. All sense of compromise and trust evaporated.
Recognition of the national interest – in the shape of restored constitutional rule and the resulting international donors and trade partners' support – was relegated to the margins as factions fought to protect their ground and the personal prerogatives of their champions.
Politicians can make deals among themselves. But voters will not necessarily follow. And big tests are still to come. Whoever wins the election will need to oversee the rebuilding of cohesion and a sense of proportion in politics.
The island has lost valuable US trade privileges, most new foreign aid credits, and the confidence of private business beyond the mining sector. The price has been paid in lost textile exports, decayed public services, paralysed development programmes and deepening poverty. The Malagasy now endure some of the worst levels of child malnutrition in the world.
Over the last two years, the factional climate has softened.
The Malagasy will now see whether their political class really can find the magnanimity to compromise in the interests of stable government and a revived focus on development and poverty reduction.
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