Will the Arab Spring still Blossom in Tunisia?

*Originally published in the Dec. 17, 2013 edition of the Los Angeles Times.

By Brian Klaas and Jason Pack

December 17, 2013

Three years ago Tuesday, the Arab Spring began when 26-year-old vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in suicidal protest against the political repression and limited economic opportunity offered in dictator Zine el Abidine ben Ali's Tunisia. This literal spark ignited dramatic political change across the Middle East.

Today, Tunisia's stalled transition remains the last, best prospect for a democratic blossoming from the Arab Spring. Hope lives on because Tunisia has learned from the other derailed democratic experiments in the region, notably in Iraq, Egypt and Libya.

In May 2003, shortly after U.S.-led coalition forces toppled Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime, L. Paul Bremer III — the de facto viceroy of Iraq — issued two fateful and misguided decrees.

"Order 1" disbanded the ruling Baath Party and excluded its members from "positions of authority and responsibility in Iraqi society." With the stroke of a pen, Iraq's elites were purged, removing crucial expertise and dooming political reconciliation. "Order 2" disbanded the Iraqi military, making 400,000 trained, armed men suddenly unemployed. Many found "work" in the fledgling insurgency.

Both decisions were colossal errors. They are now textbook examples of how not to manage the political vacuum that exists after a regime change.

Egypt's attempt at democracy failed for different reasons. Some officials from the government of ousted President Hosni Mubarak were allowed to participate after the revolution, but the elected Muslim Brotherhood government was inflexible and rarely sought common ground with its political opponents. The army was equally stubborn, refusing to bend to civilian rule. The July counterrevolutionary coup was the price paid for those failings.

Libya after Moammar Kadafi offers yet another set of lessons about what not to do during an attempted democratic transition. The new government made every mistake in the book: bribing militiamen, failing to create a national army to secure the country, refusing to form a grand coalition, and allowing the militias to blackmail it into passing the Political Isolation Law, which barred former regime officials from public life (echoing the de-Baathification mistake in Iraq).

Surrounded by such colorful failures, Tunisian officials have had many examples of what not to do.

Still, there have been dark days in Tunisia's transition. On Dec. 9, six would-be suicide bombers were arrested before they could execute their attack. Simultaneously, an alleged political assassination was foiled. Earlier this year, two prominent opposition politicians were gunned down, and a suicide bomber blew himself up on a beach full of tourists but killed only himself.

It appears, however, that the Islamist-led interim government in Tunis has taken these troubling events as warning signs and adapted accordingly.

First, learning from mistakes in Iraq and Libya, Tunisian politics are becoming more inclusive, in spite of initial echoes of de-Baathification. Although Ben Ali's political party was formally disbanded in 2011, the ruling Islamist Nahda movement has shelved a proposed controversial "immunization of the revolution" law, a virtual carbon copy of Libya's Political Isolation Law.

As a result, though some former government officials face restrictions on foreign travel, many members of the toppled dictatorial regime now lead their own political parties. Some may run in next year's presidential election. Even some of Ben Ali's top-level ministers (such as Kamel Morjane, the defense minister and later foreign minister in the former regime) are being allowed to participate freely in public life, an unthinkable prospect in Iraq or Libya.

Second, Tunisia's transition has avoided the mistakes of disbanding the military (Iraq), letting it act on its own accord (Egypt) or failing to foster an army capable of keeping the country safe (Libya). Instead, Tunisia is strengthening its military and its civilian control, with more robust troop deployments, aggressive border patrols and frequent checkpoints. The government also recently announced the creation of a national counter-terrorism body.

Third, unlike in Egypt and Libya, Tunisia's ruling elites having been working toward coalition governance. True, the population nudged them in that direction via large-scale protests against a deteriorating security climate and lackluster economy. Nonetheless, many politicians have embraced the agenda of compromise. Over the last months, they have been negotiating a stalled grand compromise with their main political opponents, brokered by the country's powerful UGTT labor union.

As part of the deal, the Islamist-led "troika" agreed in late September, at least in principle, to step down to allow a technocratic interim government to steer the country toward new elections. Finally, on Saturday, a way to implement this pledge was devised by appointing Mehdi Jomaa, a consensus candidate and the current minister of industry, as the caretaker prime minister.

This national dialogue is a stark contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood's stubbornness in Egypt or the Islamists' attempts to side with the militias in Libya.

Tunisia may be less likely to follow in the bloody footsteps of its neighbors, yet its transition is far from over. Pledges of consensus and compromise may be derailed by political violence or frustrations created by severe election delays.

So far, however, three years after starting the Arab Spring, Tunisia has learned three valuable lessons from Iraq, Egypt and Libya:

Don't disband your military or let it act as a state within a state, but do make it powerful enough to provide security. Seek consensus and compromise whenever possible. Include experienced and noncorrupt members of the former regime, or you'll risk throwing the democratic baby out with the dictatorial Baath water.

Brian Klaas, a Clarendon scholar at Oxford University, researches elections, democratic transitions and political violence. He is conducting field work in Tunis, Tunisia. Jason Pack, a researcher of Middle Eastern history at Cambridge University, is the editor of "The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future."

The Curse of Low Expectations: Lessons for Democracy from Madagascar's Election

*This article was originally published on 27 November 2013 in Foreign Policy

On Oct. 25, Madagascar -- one of the poorest countries in the world -- held its first election since a 2009 coup d'état. The first round of elections were lauded abroad as "free and fair," and many anticipated a smooth transition to democracy. But just one month later, on Nov. 22, current President Andry Rajoelina conducted what some have called a "partial coup," in which he sacked a third of the country's regional governors and replaced them with loyal military officers.

Madagascar's "free and fair" elections were severely flawed from the start, with mass disenfranchisement and uneven media coverage. But because international election monitors used such rosy rhetoric, these defects were left unchecked -- fostering favorable conditions for instability and corruption heading toward the Dec. 20 second round vote. 

Madagascar's road to democracy has been a rocky one ever since the 34-year-old Rajoelina (a radio DJ-turned-mayor) unseated Marc Ravalomanana (a dairy magnate-turned-president) in 2009. The ramifications of the coup were severe. Kicked out of the African Union and isolated diplomatically, the government saw 40 percent of its budget evaporate overnight as foreign aid was withdrawn.

In the following years, lawlessness prevailed. Heavily armed bandit militias took control of the southern part of the island, stealing tens of thousands of cattle and killing dozens of villagers in the process. The coup regime neglected to address repeated cyclone damage, creating perfect breeding conditions for locusts, which infested the island on a biblical scale, pushing millions of Malagasy even closer to starvation. Criticalhabitat loss threatens the world's premier biodiversity hotspot with a wave of extinctions. With public health programs virtually non-existent under the coup regime, diseases -- including the bubonic plague -- have spread. The 14th-century Black Death is a scourge of 21st-century Madagascar.

As these problems grew, politicians indulged in a prolonged, self-interested bickering match. Elections were scheduled, canceled, re-scheduled. This continued for four and a half years as international diplomacy sought to restore democracy to the Indian Ocean island.

Elections were made possible only when a reconstituted electoral court issued a surprise ruling banning Rajoelina, Ravalomanana, and former president Didier Ratsiraka from running. The vote proceeded with proxy candidates: former Minister of Budget and Finance Hery Rajaonarimampianina for Rajoelina and ex-World Health Organization official Jean-Louis Robinson for Ravalomanana. Both men made it through the first round of voting on Oct. 25 and into the two-man runoff scheduled for Dec. 20.

Almost immediately after polls closed, the international community eagerly gave Madagascar's election their democratic seal of approval. With only a few hundred of the 20,000 precincts reporting, they already considered the election a done deal. Madagascar had returned to democracy. The EU's chief election observer, Maria Muniz de Urquiza, declared the elections "free, transparent, and credible." Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, head of the Southern African Development Community mission, said the vote was "free and transparent and reflected the will of the people."

Now, with the second round looming, the horse-trading has begun, as the two first-round winners try to convince their vanquished opponents to support them in the second round. Nobody pretends this was ever about democratic expression or policy. It is about winning, whatever it takes. And because the international community failed to sanction the elections, the government and aspiring presidents have no incentive to change for the better.

These dynamics of Madagascar's election reveal three valuable truths about transitions in countries like Madagascar.

First: Election monitors have lower standards for Africa than they do for the West -- and that can be dangerous.

Madagascar's elections were marred by obvious irregularities. Census agents covered just 30 percent of the country, so the extremely outdated electoral lists included only 7.8 million of Madagascar's estimated 10-11 million voting age citizens. Media time was severely skewed toward Rajaonarimampianina. Illicit funding -- particularly from the illegal rosewood trade -- likely filled the campaign coffers of those close to the "transitional" regime.

This combination of irregularities made it easier for Rajoelina's candidate to clear the hurdle to the second round. After all, only 245,000 votes separated him from the third-place finisher, who is now out of the electoral contest.

If an election like this had happened in the United States, it would never be deemed "free and fair" -- but apparently, this is good enough for Africa.

To be clear, this doesn't mean that international observers should abandon Madagascar altogether. Further isolation would not help Madagascar break out of its continuing crisis of gridlock and stagnation. But likewise, this over-eagerness to celebrate severely flawed elections as paragons of democracy does not do the country any favors. And this problem is not unique to Madagascar.

Kenya's 2013 election was labeled "free and fair," and "free, fair, and credible," even though there were problems with voter lists and 28 polling stations reported turnout above 100 percent -- problems that matter especially since the winner avoided a runoff by just 8,000 votes.

Outside Africa, in Azerbaijan, the results for this year's election were seemingly accidentally released before the election happened. Vote counting irregularities occurred in 58 percent of precincts. Some observers still deemed the election "free, fair, and transparent." In reality, it was an electoral joke.

Until higher standards exist, autocrats will be able to use the words "free and fair" to validate the outcomes of undemocratic elections.

Second: Madagascar's elections demonstrate that the international community is willing to place expediency above principle.

International observers did not protest when Lalao Ravalomanana -- the former president's wife -- was barred from running on a technicality. Banning her from the ballot was expedient, but it was also bad democratic precedent. Moreover, barring the three former presidents may have been the only way to smash through the bitter roadblocks to elections -- but it is hard to argue that the resulting election represented the will of the people when three of the most popular candidates were not on the ballot. Yet this stratagem won the blessing of international mediators. This is not to say that the decision was a bad one: elections needed to happen. It is simply yet another illustration that in the messy wrangling that is African democracy, expediency often trumps democratic principle.

Third, and finally: the Malagasy election demonstrates that a sea change is needed to lower the stakes of defeat in fragile democracies.

Upon losing the U.S. presidential election in 2012, Republican candidate Mitt Romney faced the prospect of making millions on book deals or speaking tours, not exile or jail. In Madagascar, the loser of any election has a choice: go into exile, or face imprisonment. Exile is a tradition in Malagasy politics, where losers need travel agents to save their lives. This is not the recipe for long-term stability.

As long as losers in places like Madagascar face exile or (political) death if they lose, volatility and the risk of post-electoral violence is practically guaranteed. The international community should pressure regimes to respect their defeated opponents, and condition future aid guarantees on the post-electoral treatment of former rivals.

Of course, the international community cannot be blamed for everything. Certainly, these points are also important for transitioning countries to bear in mind: hold elections to a high standard, do not rush a vote, and make sure candidates can run for elections without fearing the consequences of losing. These lessons could help countries with constitutional assemblies and structured transitional roadmaps. But international pressure plays an important role in ensuring healthy transitions, and in this case -- as in so many others -- election monitors let the country down. For now, whether democracy can germinate in Madagascar from the broken seeds of the Oct. 25 vote remains to be seen.

The Ben Ali Gap: Tunisia’s youth revolution turns over the reins of power to increasingly wrinkled hands

by Brian Klaas and Rafik Halouani (originally published by the Royal African Society's African Arguments publication on 14 November 2013)

Nearly three years ago twenty-six year old Mohamed Bouazizi had his vegetable cart confiscated by police.  Bouazizi was denied an audience with local authorities when he sought to complain.  Humiliated and frustrated by the dual scourges of political repression and limited economic opportunity, Bouazizi doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire in protest.

This spark set Tunisia ablaze with political change that would eventually spread throughout the Arab world.  With 90% of his body charred, the young vendor died on January 4, 2011.  Ten days later, Ben Ali fled Tunisia.  The 74 year-old dictator, accustomed to a life of opulence and luxury had been toppled by a conflagration ignited by a 26-year old struggling to support his family on an income of less than $5 per day.

Tunisia’s profound political change owes much of its momentum to young people.  In addition to Bouazizi’s self-immolation, young Tunisians played a crucial role in forcing Ben Ali into exile and opening a new chapter of Tunisian history.

Yet, three years later, young Tunisians are not writing their national story.  While the revolution may have been written with graffiti, on Facebook walls, and on Twitter in 140 characters, it seems that a quill and ink are being used today.  After the fall of 74 year-old Ben Ali, ever more wrinkled hands are jockeying for the reins of power.

The reason for this is simple.

As Tunisia negotiates its transition, consensus and compromise are highly coveted by a political elite that is careful not to chart the same course as neighbouring Libya and Egypt.  As a result, figures seen as polarizing—no matter how competent—cannot be considered for key positions.

Anyone who touched or came close to the reins of power under the Ben Ali regime is now considered politically toxic.  This means that all top-level government officials, dating back to 1987 (when Ben Ali took power in a “medical coup”), are excluded from consideration as Tunisia searches for an interim Prime Minister to guide the country toward its perennially delayed elections.

This is the ‘Ben Ali Gap’, a phenomenon wherein an entire generation of political elites has been wiped off the political map—either in search of consensus and compromise, or as part of a 2011 “immunization of the revolution” law which sought to protect the gains of the initial uprising by ensuring that Ben Ali’s former allies could not be part of a new government.

As a result, the debate over who will lead a ‘technical’ interim government, constructed to prepare the country for elections, has stalled – torn between two old guard figures.  The Islamist-led Troika and the opposition continue to bicker over two candidates—Ahmed Mestiri, an 88 year-old supported by the ruling Ennahdha party, and Mohammad Ennaceur, the opposition-backed 79 year old (a comparative spring chicken in this emerging gerontocracy).

Both candidates share a mutual affiliation with the (pre-Ben Ali) Bourguiba regime.  Likewise, the leader of the most prominent opposition party (Beji Caid el Sebsi of Nidaa Tounes), who previously served as Prime Minister for ten months after Ben Ali fled, is about to celebrate his 87th birthday.

Whilst Tunisians in their twenties were a major driving force behind the revolution, the supposed “revolutionary regime” is turning towards people born in the “Roaring 1920s” to take power.

Tunisians, in the main, revere their elders, with grandparents often serving as heads of families late into life.  Such traditions may be responsible for an emphasis on the value of wisdom gained through experience—and there is no shortage of experience for the ministerial relics of Bourguiba’s Tunisia.  A result of Ben Ali’s repressive policy towards opposition movements, Ennahdha is led by people who spent their formative political years either in exile or in prison, but almost never in government.  The same is true for those that were members of the previously suppressed democratic opposition parties under Ben Ali.  They were never considered for high-level positions in the former regime.

As a result of these ‘gaps’ in political formation, Tunisians often malign a general lack of government experience as the revolution struggles on, limping forward with modest growth and growing security risks. Close to 50% of Tunisia’s population is younger than 30, yet only 4.6% of the National Constituent Assembly is younger than 30, and their vision for Tunisia may well be different from the vision of experienced political elites.  The voices of Tunisia’s youth deserve to be heard.

This is not to say that young people have been completely shut out, or that the vast majority of elected officials are dinosaurs of a forgotten age.  A select few elected officials are just 25 years old, and 40-50 year-olds are the most well represented age group in the elected assembly.  Nonetheless, Tunisia’s political dialogue is undeniably gravitating toward elder statesmen rather than fresh faces.

This is a problem insofar as the underlying frustrations that caused Mohamed Bouazizi’s self immolation were political repression and a lack of economic opportunity.  While it is clear that Tunisians enjoy significantly greater freedom than under the previous regime, young Tunisians continue to be largely excluded from political decision-making.  Moreover, economic prospects remain grim, particularly with estimated youth unemployment stagnating above 30%.

In spite of these major challenges, there are hopeful signs on the horizon.  While the elderly dominate the political realm a younger generation of young civil society activists  projects a vision of a new Tunisia, at home and internationally.

For now, however, the old trees in Tunisia’s political forest are crowding out the sunlight needed for new growth.  Nonetheless, activists speak of a day when the timbers that sprouted from the soil of Ben Ali and Bourguiba, may be uprooted.  When that happens, it will be the realization of a true revolution, one that breaks with the past rather than clinging to an even more distant history.

Sadly, that vision has not been realized.  It will not be anytime soon.  Nearly three years have passed since a young man sparked a revolt that forced an elderly dictator to his knees, before fleeing to save himself.  Today, the ‘Ben Ali Gap’ is doing the opposite, as Tunisians flock toward frail statesmen of a bygone era to save Tunisia.

Brian Klaas is a researcher of African politics at the University of Oxford.  He is currently based in Tunis.

Rafik Halouani is a management consultant and activist in Tunisian civil society.  He is the President of Mourakiboun, the primary network of domestic election observation in Tunisia.

Will Madagascar’s elections end the perennial crisis?

by Brian Klaas and Piers Pigou (of International Crisis Group); *this aricle was originally published as part of ICG's African Peacebuilding Agenda

The first round of voting in Madagascar’s post-coup election has finally come to an end. The polling was largely peaceful. Observers quickly called it “free and fair” — despite large numbers of would-be voters being excluded due to problems with the electoral lists — and hailed it as a major step on the path back to democracy.  A group of losing candidates who had been supported by former presidents Albert Zafy and Didier Ratsiraka have called for the results to be nullified, but they will have to route their complaints through the relevant election courts, which are unlikely to uphold them.

Grave risks remain, however. First round provisional results show Jean-Louis Robinson has won the first round (with 21.1 per cent of the vote) followed by Hery Rajaonarimampianina (approximately 15.9 per cent). Barring a major change in the certification of provisional results, these two candidates will advance to the second round on 20 December.


That will almost certainly heighten tensions. Robinson is the proxy candidate for themouvance Ravalomanana, the organisation of former President Marc Ravalomanana, who hoped to run himself but remains in exile in South Africa. Rajaonarimampianina is the proxy for Andry Rajoelina, the former radio disc jockey who took power in a 2009 coup with the Malagasy army’s help.

Even if the original protagonists are not on the ballot, the proxy candidates represent four years of bottled up frustration and bitter rivalry. With the first round past, the stakes are now much higher. Defeat for either candidate could mean exile or political irrelevance, and economic marginalisation.  Added to this is growing public discontent. Since 2009, self-interested politicians have repeatedly put their own interests before those of the general populace. Madagascar has become increasingly isolated from the international community, with dire consequences for economic growth, development and human security. Lawlessness and deteriorating faith in the criminal justice system manifest in growing vigilantism. In September, a spate of minor bomb attacks in Antananarivo by the Defenders of National Sovereignty, ostensibly protesting the international community’s role in blocking the candidacies of Ravalomanana and Rajoelina, increased fears of instability.

Four years of growing tensions – and an election

Tensions between Rajoelina’s and Ravalomanana’s movements are the product of four years of bad-faith negotiations over the latter’s return. He is now also under South African investigation into alleged crimes against humanity, for which he has been convicted in absentia in Madagascar. Ravalomanana has deliberately turned down an amnesty process that was initiated as part of the transitional roadmap to elections. Although actual prosecution is unlikely, South African courts have effectively grounded him (taking his passport) and scuppered his intentions to return; in so doing, they have enabled the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to renege on its previous demand for his immediate repatriation. But even if SADC had not been involved, the Rajoelina regime was determined to prevent Ravalomanana’s return at all costs, fearing revenge and arguing his presence would be destabilising.

In January, both men agreed to an internationally brokered pledge not to stand as candidates and to accept a “cooling off” period for the good of the country. But at the same time, Ravalomanana brokered a deal through SADC to allow his wife, Lalao, to return to care for her ailing mother. Once back in the country, she announced her presidential candidacy, prompting Rajoelina to claim the “ni-ni” (“neither Ravalomanana nor Rajoelina”) deal was off and that he would be running.

Surprisingly, both Laloa Ravalomanana and Rajoelina were approved as candidates by the electoral court, along with former president Didier Ratsiraka, even though none met the eligibility criteria; neither Ratsiraka nor Ravalomanana had been resident for six months prior to submitting candidate registration papers, and Rajoelina submitted his application after the deadline. In response, the international community withdrew its support—and critically, its election funding—to protest this clear electoral law violation. They demanded the candidates withdraw or that there be a new ruling by the court.

Nothing happened as the timeline for elections in June drew near and passed, with elections rescheduled for August. Then an International Contact Group for Madagascar meeting, in Addis Ababa in late June, witnessed an unprecedented push behind African Union and SADC efforts. (Critics claimed Madagascar’s sovereignty was being violated: SADC’s criticism of the electoral court appeared much more stringent than its more diplomatic positioning on Zimbabwe’s controversial constitutional-court decision to fast-track polls there.) As we described in October, The reconstituted electoral court re-convened and issued a surprise ruling disqualifying Ravalomanana, Rajoelina, former president Didier Ratsiraka and three minor candidates.

The principals’ exclusion resulted in a showdown between proxy candidates. To cynics, this is old wine in new bottles. To optimists, it is an opportunity for new political growth, without the emotional attachments that have become so palpable in the four year-long Ravalomanana-Rajoelina showdown.

Despite a smooth first round, there are no institutional guarantees or candidate pledges to accept the runoff results. Lip service continues to be paid to the interests of ordinary Malagasies, but it is the dynamics within and between the political and business elites and the security services that will ultimately determine the outcome.

On to the second round

Madagascar has a history of large-scale protests when power is at stake. Street-level protests culminated in the 2009 coup, and a similar series of events could sprout from a manipulated or just badly managed election. Furthermore, even if the runoff proceeds smoothly there is a high risk the loser will call on supporters to turn to the streets or ask allies within the military to step in.

The Defenders of National Sovereignty attacks make matters worse. While it is unclear whether the group backs a particular candidate or mouvance, the crude explosive devices (they caused minimal damage and one bombmaker accidentally killed himself) have exacerbated the insecurity. Understandable fears could keep voter turnout in the second round low and thus reduce the legitimacy of the result.

All in all, the chance of a smooth second round acceptable to all Malagasies as legitimate is remote.  How they respond to irregularities will determine whether the country is plunged back into crisis. The logistical problems of holding a vote on a large island with poor infrastructure heighten this risk. Many ballots must be transported overland, an enormous logistical exercise—in the first round, provisional results were not announced until 8 November, two full weeks after voting. Some ballot boxes will have to be left unguarded, as there are not enough security personnel to oversee the almost 20,000 polling locations. Only about one in five stations will have security.

The international community in general should insist that, whatever happens after the second round, the rights of the losing candidate are respected.  Madagascar’s last two transfers of power have involved forced exile. Were defeated candidates to know they would be allowed to stay in Madagascar and might even have a voice in the new government, the electoral temperature would be lowered.

The international community should also use its influence to calm the military, which has acted as an interventionist kingmaker and could again. While a takeover appears unlikely, the 2009 coup was sparked by a minor mutiny by mid-level soldiers that prompted the involvement of more senior officers. Similar dynamics could arise again, particularly if mass protests get out of control and deteriorating security justifies intervention. Such a scenario is unlikely to result in a military regime — the army historically has conferred power on its preferred civilian –  but would most likely lead to further international isolation and continued crisis.

These concerns are hard to manage and tricky to mitigate. Yet the international community must engage and attempt to prevent a post-electoral crisis. The December vote represents a genuine opportunity for a more hopeful and inclusive political order. This is only possible if support continues beyond the elections and translates into genuine efforts to build responsive, accountable state institutions and promote political and economic policies that spread benefits beyond the narrow elite. It’s a tall order in a country where political fault lines and poor governance are entrenched. But there is still hope that Madagascar’s elections will herald a new chapter in the country’s troubled history.

The Cartoon Farce of Madagascar's Election

by Brian Klaas, originally co-authored with Jason Pack for The Huffington Post (25 October 2013) 

The people of Madagascar head to the polls this week to select a new president. The outcome will be a critical test for both the region's progression towards democracy and the international community's resolve. 

If you know absolutely nothing about Madagascar's politics, you're certainly not alone. Most Americans are familiar with the cuddly cartoon lemurs from the family films. Few people know the less playful Madagascar reality. Its cast includes brutal military coups, predatory politicians, locusts, heavily armed cattle rustlers terrorizing and killing helpless villagers, and even bubonic plague.

Madagascar's history over the last five years is more unbelievable than cartoon fiction. In 2009, a 34-year-old radio disc jockey Andry Rajoelina drew upon support from the army to topple the incumbent president, Marc Ravalomanana -- a man who grew up selling yogurt off a cart in the capital before building a dairy empire and eventually winning the presidency.

Because of the coup, Madagascar became an international pariah. Expelled from the African Union and isolated diplomatically, international aid dried up. Overnight, 40 percent of an already thin budget vanished. One of the world's poorest countries is now significantly poorer.

The election this Friday -- the first since the coup -- is a big opportunity for Madagascar and the international community. For Malagasies, it is an opportunity to elect a new leader at a time of unprecedented crisis. For the international community, it is a chance to showcase a firm commitment to democracy and make clear that coup governments and sham elections will not be tolerated. Sadly, it is likely that both opportunities will be missed.

If that happens, crisis and tragedy may follow. Since the coup, Madagascar's government has withered to a much smaller group of self-interested regime insiders, even compared to the ridiculously low standards of African politics. The economy, which was growing rapidly before the coup, has stagnated since. Four million people face food shortages because locust swarms have devoured staple crops and the government is powerless to help. Cattle rustler militias known as dahalo have killed dozens of villagers in the process of stealing tens of thousands of humped cows (zébus). And to add farce to tragedy, there is currently an outbreak of bubonic plague -- the medieval Black Death has literally returned to modern Madagascar.

Any of these problems individually could be catastrophic, even in a country with an effective government with a strong bureaucracy. Yet Madagascar lacks good governance, and all of these calamities are hitting the island at once. If, somehow, Malagasies weather these storms, cyclone season is just around the corner.

Madagascar needs effective political leaders now, but they are unlikely to arise from this election. Neither the incumbent (Rajoelina) nor the toppled former president (Ravalomanana) are on the ballot, but they are represented by proxy candidates who seem to be cut from the same self-interested cloth.

Should we care about Madagascar and its election? Or, should we dismiss Madagascar as an exotic island far away, with problems that are not ours?

Dismissing Madagascar as irrelevant would be a mistake.

Power-hungry politicians in fragile democracies pay attention to elections elsewhere. When electoral manipulation is rewarded, they do not miss the lesson. Alternatively, when sham elections are condemned, they learn a different lesson.

The election in Madagascar is a test of the international community's commitment to democracy. There is a strong possibility that the international community will fail this test. International mediators are eager to take credit for four years of diplomatic wrangling paving the way to elections. They will be prone to rubber-stamping a bad election simply to claim victory and save face. Others may follow suit, to resume disbursing backlogged foreign aid that has been earmarked for Madagascar but shelved since 2009. If a bad election is praised as a good one, democracy across the region will suffer.

Moreover, if Madagascar lurches straight back into a crisis or a coup after elections, the humanitarian break point may approach quickly. The international community will be forced to choose between costly emergency aid or watch a large swath of the Malagasy population starve to death.

Finally, political volatility in Madagascar threatens the world's premier biodiversity hotspot. Most of Madagascar's 200,000 native species (including its famous lemurs) exist only there. The ongoing political chaos has allowed lawless habitat destruction. Even dozens of endangered lemur species are being hunted for food by starving Malagasies. The world may lose countless species to extinction, with key impacts on scientific research.

On Friday, Malagasies will supposedly choose who will lead them through these turbulent times. Because that choice is likely to be little more than an electoral farce, the international community will also have to make a choice. Will they turn a blind eye to electoral manipulation and rampant "irregularities" while congratulating themselves in diplomatic circles for steering Madagascar back to democracy? Or will they send a message that governments that come to power by breaking the key rules of democracy do not get rewarded with aid and diplomatic recognition?

Unfortunately, it seems most likely that the reality in Madagascar will once more be obscured by a cartoon caricature.

Brian Klaas focuses on Madagascar politics, elections, and political violence at the University of Oxford.

Jason Pack is a researcher of African History at Cambridge University and President of Libya-Analysis.com.


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


Madagascar's Transition Still Afloat as Robinson and Rajaonarimampianina Face Off in Round Two

by Brian Klaas, originally published by African Arguments of the Royal African Society on 4 November 2013

Finally, Madagascar voted.  October 25th marked the first election since the devastating 2009 coup froze the island’s political and economic growth.  For the last four and a half years, the Malagasy people have been mired in economic stagnation and political uncertainty.  The first round vote has been hailed as a “free, transparent, and credible,” (UN) election that “reflects the will of the people” (SADC).  These pronouncements, which came almost immediately after polls closed, offer a hopeful view of the country’s prospects.  The overwhelming theme of the initial post-vote news cycle has been: “The Malagasy people have finally brought democracy back to Madagascar.”

The first test of these optimistic pronouncements will be the lead up to the second round of voting on December 20th, when the presidential runoff and the parliamentary election take place.

The long-overdue election functions, substantially, as an attempt to bring Madagascar back into the international community.  Already one of the poorest countries in the world, Madagascar was further isolated and foreign aid disappeared in 2009 when 34 year-old radio disc jockey Andry Rajoelina, with the help of the military, toppled dairy magnate Marc Ravalomanana in a coup d’état.

Virtually no progress was made for four years with the economy contracting severely.  Political and economic progress has limped along since.  A new rugby stadium is one of the only tangible accomplishments of the “transitional” regime led by Andry Rajoelina, who is now close to completing a full electoral mandate.

There is, however, genuine cause for optimism in the wake of the recent election.  Madagascar’s first post-coup vote went much more smoothly than many observers expected.  There was limited violence, and a relatively low number of irregularities have thus far been cited.  Contestations of local results have also been handled at the independent election commission’s (CENIT) offices, precisely as planned.

As international praise pours in, so too may international aid—a critical lynchpin of development and state budgeting for the deeply impoverished island.  Donors are eager to come back and disburse long overdue payments slated for projects canceled during the crisis.

In spite of these positive signs, there are still troubling facts that are being largely ignored—both about the election, and the potentially destabilizing dynamic set-up by the impending second round.

First, the election was not quite as flawless as one might imagine from headline news.  Roughly 4.7 million Malagasy citizens voted in the first round election and preliminary results (with 75% of precincts reporting) suggest a 60% turnout—a relatively high figure in regional terms.  Yet something doesn’t quite add up: Approximately 4.7 million Malagasies cast their votes, but Madagascar is home to more than 22 million people.

Admittedly, like many sub-Saharan African countries, Madagascar has a young demographic profile.  However, 2010 United Nations estimates suggest that as of 2010 (the latest available figures), there were about 10.5 million Malagasy of eligible voting age (18+).  That number has surely grown over the last three years, yet the electoral roll only contained 7.8 million names.  In other words, between two and three million people who should have been eligible to vote were likely denied the possibility because of severely flawed voter registration procedures.

It also means that the 60% turnout figure cited widely may be too high by nearly 20% – a difference that raises questions of the new precise nature of the government’s mandate.

Second, the vote counting procedure is painfully slow.  Full provisional results will not be announced until November 8th, two full weeks after the polls close.  There will be another delay before those results are certified. So far, that has not caused any problems.  Hopefully the population will be able to sustain its patience, but the stakes are much higher in the second round.

Higher stakes and slow vote tabulation could be a perilous mix.  While the goal of the first round was to whittle down the crowded field of 33 candidates—of varying seriousness and quality—to a much more manageable two person face-off, the aftermath of the second round has the potential for far more serious consequences.

This is because in a place like Madagascar, where politics is about personalities rather than policy, any candidate that does not clear the initial hurdle to the second round is virtually guaranteed to be courted by the two candidates that do clear it.  In other words, nobody is left out in the political wilderness, or put in appropriately Malagasy terms; a loss in the first round rarely requires the choice between buying a plane ticket to exile or a trip to jail.

The same cannot be said for the second round, when the winner typically attempts to completely neutralize the threat of the loser. Both of the last two presidents (Marc Ravalomanana and Didier Ratsiraka) were forced into exile once they left office.  The stakes are therefore high – when power is conferred, and the prospect of political death is on the table, tensions are sure to rise.

So, how has that historic dynamic played out this time around? Are tensions likely to be elevated heading into the December contest?  And if so, what perils might lurk ahead?

As Emilie Filou has written for African Arguments, it is quite remarkable that these elections are taking place at all – this is a testament to pressure applied by the international community and Malagasy electoral bodies, which managed to exclude three of the most popular candidates from participating.

Andry Rajoelina – the incumbent President of the [4+ Year] Transition –  was initially certified as a candidate before the long saga surrounding his potential eligibility was resolved when a court ruled, quite simply, that he submitted his paperwork late. His main rival and the man that he deposed, former President Ravalomanana, initially pledged not to run in a good faith agreement with Rajoelina.

While Rajoelina broke the pledge with his attempt to run, Ravalomanana broke its spirit, putting his wife’s name forward in his stead.  She was, however, also deemed ineligible by a court because she had not lived in Madagascar for the requisite six month period prior to elections—something she really couldn’t be blamed for as she was in forced exile with her husband in South Africa.  Didier Ratsiraka, the “Red Admiral” former president, was denied on similar grounds, as he had been in exile in France.

In the end, this meant that three of the most popular choices were not on the ballot.  This may have been an unavoidable necessity in smashing the roadblocks to democratic elections produced by bitter personal rivalries, but it is worth questioning the precedent for democratic procedure.

This is particularly the case with reference to Ravalomanana, who was forced out of power and into exile by a coup d’état.  Without strategic considerations of expediency, it would be difficult to justify his exclusion from the process in the spirit of democratic principles.  The same is true for Ratsiraka (Rajoelina’s exclusion is more justifiable because of his pathway to power).

Nevertheless, this is an important point to note, because each of the three candidates—and Ravalomanana and Rajoelina in particular—threw their weight behind a favored “proxy” candidate.  Supporters of each movement were told that a vote for these “proxies” would be a vote for the candidate they truly supported, Rajoelina or Ravalomanana.  Hery Rajaonarimampianina, the coup regime’s Minister of Finance and Budget, replaced Rajoelina.  Jean-Louis Robinson, a doctor-turned government minister and WHO official, replaced Ravalomanana.

Whilst the full results are yet to be released, it is virtually certain that these two candidates will face off in the second round and one of them will be the next president.  Robinson leads Rajoelina by a margin of 25% to 15%, figures that have held largely steady as votes trickle in.  This foreshadows a dynamic where the toppled former regime is battling on the ballot with the regime that orchestrated the coup.

Tensions around the second round are already elevated; this polarizing choice of candidates injects substantially more possible volatility.  For example, if Rajoelina cannot corral other parties into his camp and funnel their supporters to his side, he could be tempted to try to damage, delay, or delegitimize the second round vote.  Likewise, Ravalomanana’s movement could do the same, or call for large-scale protests—the same type of protests, ironically, that eventually led to Ravalomanana’s downfall in 2009.

These risks do not eclipse the optimism produced by a first round that proceeded better than was expected.  But to avoid these scenarios, the next steps must proceed with caution.  The risks of renewed volatility are real—particularly as the country copes with food shortages created by ravenous locusts, heavily militarized bandits in the south, desperate levels of poverty, and health challenges that now include even bubonic plague.

After waiting for more than four years, Madagascar has voted.  But the story is not over despite rosy media reports and congratulatory praise from electoral observers and the international community.  The Malagasy people vote again on December 20th and it remains uncertain whether the island’s fragile democratic transition can remain afloat, or if it will be sunk—along with hopes for peace and prosperity—in a high stakes game of pre- and post-electoral political brinksmanship.

Brian Klaas focuses on Madagascar politics, elections and political violence at the University of Oxford.