Madagascar Deserves Free and Fair Elections

  by Brian Klaas and Piers Pigou (Southern Africa Director for International Crisis Group), originally published in South Africa's City Press newspaper, 6 October 2013

Madagascar, one of the world’s poorest nations, has been mired in a political crisis since 2009, when former radio DJ Andry Rajoelina toppled president Marc Ravalomanana in a military coup.

Social and economic conditions are dire. Investment and aid have been cut off.

Poverty is on the rise. Insecurity and lawlessness prevail. In the south, dozens of civilians have been killed by heavily armed bandits.

Compounding the deteriorating humanitarian situation, swarms of locusts now threaten 13 million farmers’ livelihoods, as well as food security in the country.

But there is a ray of hope. Presidential elections, which have been scheduled and rescheduled repeatedly since the coup, are now slated to take place on October 25 (with a run-off before Christmas if no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote).

An internationally recognised free and fair election is key to ending Madagascar’s isolation, and to offering a way out of the current economic abyss.

That’s the best-case scenario. The nation does not have a good democratic track record. In September 2011, an election road map brokeredby the Southern African Development Community was followed by an uncertain 16-month transitional power-sharing arrangement.

It did not resolve the political deadlock between Ravalomanana (living in exile in South Africa) and the transition leader, Rajoelina.

Earlier this year, the political winds looked promising. Both men agreed to withdraw from the presidential race in a good-faith agreement brokered by the international community to defuse the tense political situation. In a matter of weeks, both reneged.

Ravalomanana put forward his wife in his stead, violating the agreement’s spirit, if not the letter. Rajoelina broke it more directly, announcing that he would be a candidate himself.

Another former president, Didier Ratsiraka, also threw his hat in the ring.

Remarkably, the electoral court accepted their candidacies, despite all three failing to comply with eligibility criteria.

Outraged, the international community refused to finance the vote and threatened sanctions if they didn’t withdraw. They refused.

An impasse ensued, with the politicians playing self-interested games while Madagascar slumped deeper into stagnation.

Recent developments have generated renewed momentum. A reconstituted electoral court ruled in August that all three candidates (along with several others) didn’t qualify and would be excluded.

The decision took domestic and international actors by surprise, but unlocked finances and opened the way for the first legitimate elections in more than two decades.

But uncertainty remains, exacerbated by several bomb blasts in the capital, Antananarivo, last month.

The disqualifying of popular candidates has heightened tensions.

But in a nation where cynics are nearly always vindicated, there is still cause for optimism. Both the Ravalomanana (63) and Rajoelina (34) camps have identified proxy candidates.

While Rajoelina has tapped several regime insiders, Ravalomanana’s movement will be represented by Dr Jean Louis Robinson, who served in his Cabinet.

There are 31 other candidates of varying quality. If elections proceed peacefully and the Malagasy people and the international community deem the process and outcome credible, the nation may have some real hope for recovery.

» Klaas is a PhD candidate in politics at the University of Oxford and Pigou is the director of The International Crisis Group’s Southern Africa Project