In the latest twist of Madagascar’s long-running electoral saga, the African island country’s electoral court earlier this week decided to disqualify the three leading candidates in the election, which had been scheduled for August 23.
That means neither current president Andry Rajoelina nor former first lady Lalao Ravalomanana (a stand-in for exiled former president Lalao Ravalomanana) nor former president Didier Ratsiraka will be in the running for the first presidential vote in seven years.
In a sense, it may have been a better solution to let all of the candidates run — why not let them have at it in a free-for-all to determine who should lead Madagascar? In a free and fair election, the winner would have that much more of a mandate for his (or her) government. This way, all three can now credibly claim that, but for the judicial intervention, he (or she) would have been elected, which will inevitably weaken the person who is ultimately chosen in the election.
But in a world where the election court is going to start disqualifying candidates, it’s better that all three heavyweights are excluded rather than just one or two. Moreover, the European Union, the African Union and the Southern African Development Community had all pushed for their disqualification, and EU high representative for foreign policy Catherine Ashton had set a sharp deadline for Madagascan elections to be held by the end of the year in order to avoid further sanctions.
The immediate roots of Madagascar’s current political crisis lie in the early days of 2009, when Rajoelina, then the major of Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital and largest city, led sustained protests against Ravalomanana’s government. When a pro-Rajoelina crowd marched on the presidential palace, Ravalomanana ordered his guard to fire on the crowd, killing 30 protesters and leading to a military coup that essentially deposed Ravalomanana in March 2009 and installed Rajoelina in his place — illegitimately, in the eyes of the rest of the world. Rajoelina, only 34 years old at the time, was supposed to serve as president of a semi-transitional government — the ‘High Transitional Authority of Madagascar’ — that was supposed to pass a new constitution and hold new presidential elections as soon as 2010.
But Rajoelina has now served almost as long as he would have if elected to a full term as president — four years. Although the country passed a new constitution into effect in November 2010 with the support of the international community, Madagascar’s presidential election was postponed six times from an initial date in May 2011 until the August 2013 date, which now too looks like it will be postponed. Much of the problem has had to do with who’s running — Rajoelina and Marc Ravalomanana, who remains in exile in South Africa, had struck an agreement in January that neither would stand in the election. But when Lalao Ravalomanana decided to enter the race in lieu of her husband in May, Rajoelina argued that Ravalomanana broke their agreement and accordingly, Rajoelina declared his own candidacy.
Madagascar now seems likely to move forward with a new kind of fresh-start election, though it seems doubtful that it will take place on Friday — even before the latest political earthquake, Atallah Beatrice, the head of the country’s electoral commission, said that the August 23 date wasn’t feasible, but hoped to reschedule the vote by October, and the commission will now likely work with other top Malagasy officials to set a new date. The candidates have until today to name replacements, though it’s unclear whether they will do so. Officially, the court disqualified Rajoelina because he filed his candidacy after an April 28 deadline and disqualified Ravalomanana and Ratsiraka had not met the residency requirement because they had returned from exile (the former in South Africa, the latter in France) too late to qualify. Five other candidates were also disqualified, leaving a still-staggering field of 31 candidates for the perhaps-soon-to-be-held election.
The court specifically upheld the candidacy of Albert Camille Vital, a former army officer who served as prime minister under Rajoelina from 2009 to 2011, and it confirmed the candidacy of Edgard Razafindravahy, who has been acting mayor of Antananarivo (the chairman of the ‘acting special delegation’) since August 2009 under Rajoelina’s orders. The candidacies of deputy prime minister Hajo Andrianainarivelo and former prime minister Monja Roindefo Zafitsimivalo, who served from March to October 2009 as Rajoelina’s first choice for premier, were also confirmed. All four are now likely to emerge as potential top-tier candidates.
The international community largely suspended foreign aid to Madagascar, a former French colony of around 22 million people, in the wake of the 2009 takeover. That has only added to the country’s economic woes — the country contracted 4.6% in 2009 and marked between 1% and 2% GDP growth in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Foreign investment and tourism also took significant hits in the wake of the 2009 coup, and textiles and spices account for about half of the country’s exports. While the country isn’t plagued with the kind of inter-ethnic rivalries that many African countries face, both Rajoelina and Ravalomanana hail from the island’s largest ethnic group, the Merina. Nor is the country plagued by Christian/Islam tension, with nearly half of the country’s residents following traditional Malagasy beliefs and nearly another half practicing both Catholic and Protestant Christianity, with minor pockets of Hindu-practicing and Islam-practicing Madagascans.
Ratsiraka, who served as Madagascar’s president from 1975 to 1993 and again from 1997 to 2002, represents a throwback to an even less democratic era in Madagascar. Installed by the Malagasy military, Ratsiraka was reelected for nearly two decades in patently fraudulent elections and sought a relatively socialist economic course for the country. Forced to hold fairer elections in 1992, he lost a bid for reelection to Albert Zafy. When Zafy was impeached in 1996 by Madagascar’s national assembly, Ratsiraka returned to power in an election where he only narrowly defeated Zafy (who was allowed to run again). Ravalomanana, in turn, defeated Ratsiraka in the first round of the following 2002 election, though Ratsiraka tried to take back the presidency by force in an odd post-election coda.