Never heard of Madagascan politics before? Well read on because our African expert Jonathon Lewis has this cracking wrap of what is a farcical and increasingly violent stalemate.

Madagascar, an island of 15 million people off the east coast of Africa, has been crippled by political turmoil since last year’s elections. Incumbent president Didier Ratsiraka, who has ruled Madagascar for twenty-three years, and his presidential opponent Marc Ravalomanana have been involved in an increasingly farcical deadlock since the December 16 poll.

Official results of the election, certified by the High Constitutional Court (HCC), showed Ravalomanana winning 46.21% of the vote, with Ratsiraka trailing on 40.89%. Four other candidates polled poorly. Because no candidate received the required majority vote, the HCC ordered a second round between the two leading candidates to decide the winner.

Ravalomanana, however, claimed that he had been cheated and insists that he won more than 52% of the vote. The HCC has admitted that it annulled the results from 347 of the 6200 ballot polling stations, and that a further 36 polling stations had not functioned at all, effectively cancelling more than 82,000 votes. Ratsiraka, by comparison, is determined that the second vote should go ahead.

The contrast between the two candidates couldn’t be more marked, and reads like a script from a particularly lame soap opera. Admiral Didier Ratsiraka came to power in a military coup in 1975 and imposed his Marxist ideology on the impoverished country until public demand for multi-party elections saw him removed from office in 1992. In 1997, however, Ratsiraka and his party, The Pillar and Structure for the Salvation of Madagascar, were returned to power after the failure of attempts to resurrect the economy. Marc Ravalomanana, on the other hand, is a self-made dairy tycoon, who began his career hawking yoghurt. He emerged from political obscurity to be elected mayor of the capital, Antananarivo, in 1999 and is hugely popular in the city, although his support in rural areas is less certain.

In January 2002, Antananarivo was brought to a standstill by a week of protests in support of the mayor of the city. Hundreds of thousands of people marched to protest the High Court’s decree of a run-off between Ratsiraka and Ravalomanana. In February, however, buoyed by the support he was receiving from not just the people of Antananarivo, but some of the country’s clergy and judiciary, Ravalomanana took the extraordinary step of declaring himself president, and refusing to take part in any further poll. The move was condemned as unconstitutional by the United States, United Nations, former colonial power France and the Organisation for African Unity (OAU), and led to the unprecedented situation of two rival cabinets showing up for work the following week: even for African politics, this was more farcical than a Carry On movie. Ravalomanana exacerbated the surrealism of the whole experience by spontaneously declaring a public holiday to celebrate his inauguration as president.

Ravalomanana’s declaration of his victory did nothing to sway Ratsiraka, however, who stayed holed up in his presidential palace (built with North Korean money) on the outskirts of Antananarivo. Ratsiraka refused to concede defeat and maintained that the run-off between the two leading candidates would decide who would govern Madagascar. In response, Ravalomanana called on the people of Antananarivo to go on strike, and in a week of further protest, numbers gradually increased until one million of Antananarivo’s four million people staged mass protests in the centre of the city. The protests were, incidentally, larger than any of those that forced Ratsiraka to declare multi-party elections in the early 1990s.

But Ratsiraka was unmoved by this, and declared martial law in the capital to attempt to disperse the mass protests. However, once again this produced a situation of high farce: martial law could not be imposed unless it was widely proclaimed, but with television and print journalists on strike, it was not possible to get the message out to the people of Madagascar.

But comedy and tragedy are never very far apart in African politics, and the largely peaceful mass protests of January and February were replaced by more intimidatory tactics in March 2002. Supporters of Didier Ratsiraka destroyed three bridges linking Antananarivo to coastal port towns and blockaded other roads out of the capital to prevent key supplies from reaching the city. Within weeks, petrol was unavailable (except at exorbitant prices on the black market), and queues were beginning to form for dwindling supplies of sugar, salt and oil. Imports and exports from the country have been halted, paralysing the economy, and aid agencies fear that a repeat of an outbreak of cholera that occurred in 2000 would be disastrous due to an inability to get medication to the capital.

Then, in mid-April, events took a particularly unpleasant turn. Supporters of Marc Ravalomanana attacked and looted the houses of four associates of Didier Ratsiraka. Members of the armed forces loyal to the incumbent president fired upon the crowd, killing one person and injuring twenty more. Ravalomanana supporters then attacked the official residence of a governor loyal to Ratsiraka in the town of Fianarantsoa. Soldiers sent to bolster defences in the town were ambushed at a roadblock, leaving five dead and eighteen wounded.

While abhorrent in its own right, the act was symptomatic of a greater and more sinister ill: an imploding armed forces. The army, which had until that point declared its neutrality, began to split into rival factions supporting the two presidential hopefuls. Army sources claim that it was known that the soldiers were being sent to their deaths, but it was to serve as a warning for pro-Ratsiraka elements within the army. The Madagascan armed forces are one of the world’s most top-heavy, with 125 generals for only 25,000 members, including 14,000 military police. Despite this, however, the incident in Fianarantsoa was the first case of internal problems in the army since Madagascar’s independence in 1960. The deaths of the soldiers was simply a case of pro-Ravalomanana generals attempting to relieve the blockade of Antananarivo by taking control of a town on an important supply route, and pro-Ratsiraka generals attempting to prevent it.

With civil war looming, the two men at the centre of the presidential stand-off are now attempting an eleventh hour round of negotiations in Senegal, as the OAU desperately attempts to stave off war. But hopes are not high: just a week earlier Ravalomanana said he would not meet with Ratsiraka until the roadblocks around Antananarivo were lifted, and Ratsiraka said that he would not meet with his opponent until the rival cabinet was dissolved. With the second vote scheduled for April 28, and with Ravalomanana still refusing to take part, it seems likely now that, as always, it will be the ordinary people of Madagascar who suffer for the vanities of their leaders.

Jonathon Lewis can be contacted at [email protected]

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