Malagasy head to the polls on Wednesday to elect a new president. In one of the world's poorest countries, campaign expenditure rather than policy is set to decide the outcome.
According to this passerby in the capital, Antananarivo, the election should not be happening in the first place.
"It's pointless," he told DW, "I have seen different presidents come and go. They make promises which they then never keep."
He says he will not vote. "The candidates always have big plans for us, but I never see any evidence that they intend to deliver on them."
Many think like him. Citizens lack faith in Madagascar's politicians and political system, and the country itself is in a serious plight. Since independence in 1960 Madagascar has struggled to pull itself out of poverty. Despite a relatively peaceful post-colonial history, the country's Gross Domestic Product per capita has consistently fallen. The United Nations Human Development Index ranks Madagascar in the bottom quarter and 90 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The mostly rural population has severely limited job prospects and in desperation many to turn to crime.
"This lack of security that people feel is bad for business and everyday life. Poverty and corruption regularly lead to catastrophes," says political activist Romeo Razafintsalam.
One of the world's most expensive elections
Thirty-six candidates are running for the country's highest office. Almost all are men, many of them former regional and government leaders. Marcus Schneider, who heads the Madagascan office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, calls it the 'Election of the Century:' "For the first time we have four ex-presidents and three former prime ministers in the race," Schneider said in an interview with DW.
The hopefuls include current President Hery Rajaonarimampianina and his predecessor Andry Rajoelina. Both have named their campaigns "Rise." Rajoelina's predecessor, Marc Ravalomanana, whom Rajoelina ousted in 2009, strikes a defiant tone. His motto? "Never Give Up!"
Residents of Manjakaray, a poor suburb of Antananarivo, out in support for former Education Minister Paul Rabary
Grand catchphrases to tackle big problems, perhaps. Yet what the candidates certainly have is deep pockets – necessary for arguably the most expensive election in the world. One study by the European Union after the 2013 election found that leading Madagascan candidates outspend even their American counterparts when it comes to expenditure per voter. The 2018 presidential election is projected to be similarly costly.
"Presidential candidates have to pay a €25,000 (28,500) deposit, which is already expensive,” said Salomon Ravelontsalama of the La Gazette de la Grande Ile daily newspaper. "But that's nothing compared to what they spend on the campaign trail, which can run into the millions."
Big promises, few results
A Friedrich Ebert Foundation study concluded that it is ultimately the candidates' budgets that decide the election result. The election schedule is extremely tight: 30 days for the first round, seven days for a possible run-off. Madagascar is a large country, bigger than France, so candidates need to cover great distances. However, the road network is often in terrible condition, and as a result, candidates are forced to travel by plane or helicopter. They must also have a strong team to drum up support locally and prepare rallies. Local elites often pledge their support to the highest bidder, the study found.
There is not much to choose between the actual campaigns. All candidates highlight the need for safe drinking water, schools, jobs, the need to fight corruption and attract investment. Yet none of the three leading candidates managed to improve much in those areas during their respective stints in office. Consequently, turnout at the 2015 local election was low – so low in fact that not even 30 percent of registered voters in Antananarivo cast a ballot. Even fewer voted in rural communities.
Battle against poverty and exploitation
Despite the disillusionment ordinary Malagasy people feel, the election stirs up plenty of emotion and bitterness among the politicians. The festering political situation regularly flares up prior to elections. In April, the opposition called for demonstrations against President Rajaonarimampianina when he was accused of trying to change the election rules in his favor. The resulting consensus between challengers Rajoelina and Ravalomanana was surprising considering Rajoelina had forced Ravalomanana into exile for many years during his presidency.
In June Madagascans took to the streets of Antananarivo to vent their frustration at the government's lack of service delivery
Ultimately, whoever takes power will have to reckon with an uphill battle against pressing challenges – reducing poverty and the exploitation of natural resources by a small elite. Marcus Schneider from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation is skeptical about how successful any of the candidates will be:
"The main problem is that those who benefit from corruption and illegal activities have very close political ties," he said. A president who wants to change the trend, therefore, has to neutralize these corrupt networks.
"The big question is whether Madagascar can get a president who has the necessary means – and motivation – to do this," he added.
Andry Rajoelina is conducting the most expensive campaign in the country. Where he gets his funding from is unclear.
"It's feared that, if Rajoelina is successful, he'll try to recover those funds," said Schneider, adding that this kind of behavior is not conducive to moving Madagascar forward.
Rémy Mallet and Prisca Rakotomalala contributed to this article.