The people of Madagascar are waiting for the outcome of Saturday's election.They hope the new leadership will lift their country out of political chaos and rescue it from economic ruin.
It is a long list. Thirty three candidates competed in Friday's presidential elections in Madagascar, far more than the last election in 2006. Parties are playing a subordinate role. "You'll look for familiar candidates' names in vain," said Jean Herve Rakotozanany, a radio journalist who has been covering Madagascan politics for the last 15 years. Some of the candidates' names were completely unknown to him.
Initially it had seemed that well-known heavyweights such as Marc Ravalomanana and Andry Rajoelina would be contesting this election. Ravalomanana was president until the beginning of 2009. He was then ousted by Rajoelina and fled into exile.
Withdrew from the race
In the meantime Madagascar has been without an elected government, the economy is in ruins and grinding poverty is spreading. The presidential elections have been postponed several times. One reason was a row over who would be permitted to compete. Both rivals, Ravalomanana and Rajoelina, had promised not to run for the post. But then Ravalomanana's wife entered the race and Rajoelina also decided to take part after all. Both Ravalomanana and Rajoelina had failed to abide by electoral regulations according to the African Union (AU) and the southern African regional body SADC who were acting as mediators. Bowing to pressure, the two candidates withdrew from the race.
This left many Madagascans frustrated. They felt they had been robbed of their candidates and their right to vote. "Some say it is not the Madagascans who are running this election, but the international community which is pursuing its own interests," said Rakotozanany. He personally does not believe that intervention by mediators will endanger Madagascan democracy." After all, we Madagascans will be electing our president, " he said.
'Surprise in store'
The country's veteran politicians have not vacated the field. In a message from his place of exile in South Africa, Marc Ravalomanana called on his supporters to vote for his former health minister Jean Louis Robinson. Andry Rajoelina, in his capacity as interim president, is obliged to stay neutral, but it is no secret that he is backing his former
finance minister Hery Rajaonarimampianina. Membership of a political party appears to be of minor significance and by no means all of the candidates belong to one of Madagascar's 170 parties.
There are no reliable opinion polls, but it seems certain that there will have to be a run-off vote in December. Nobody knows who will make it to the second round, according to Sahondra Rabenarivo, lawyer and rights activist in Madagascar. "There's a surprise in store," she told DW. "Of course, those who are in public view are tipped as the hopefuls. But what you don't see is the campaign machinery behind the other candidates who are operating a little more discreetly. They have people on the ground who can go around canvassing for votes."
One such candidate is Saraha Georget Rabeharisoa. She is the chair of the Madagascan Greens Party and one of just two women candidates on the list. Many observers believe she could put the country back on its feet. Others doubt whether a society as patriarchal as Madagascar is ready for a woman at the top. But the Greens politician responds to such criticism by saying that those who argue women have no chance are generally politicians and male ones at that. "They know that I'm the one who can spring that surprise," she added.
Criticism of how election was organized
For the first time in a Madagascan election, the names of the candidates are printed on one single ballot, not on separate ones as in the past. The idea is to stop ballot
rigging, but there has been criticism nonetheless. Some say the new system should have been better explained and prepared beforehand. There have also been problems with voting cards. Anyone who wanted to vote has to produce one of these cards at the polling station. But just days before the elections many Madagascans hadn't received their documentation so the Electoral Commission ruled that identity cards could be used as a substitute.
Rabenarivo said the voting cards should have been sent out earlier. "That would have reassured people," she said "There is a lot of uncertainty in the air," she added. Will the elections be free and fair? "That's the big question," she said after a moment's thought. But what is most important is that those who lose this election accept the result."Otherwise, there will be serious trouble between the first and second rounds," she predicted.
The start of a new era?
The run-off has been penciled in for December 20 and therein lies the next problem. It's right in the middle of the rainy season when the roads are impassable and the polling stations could be inaccessible for many people. "It's hardly ideal, but elections have to be held this year so the crisis can be brought to an end," said Helmut Burmeister, who heads the Madagascan office of the German development organization GIZ. He has witnessed the country's decline since the coup four years ago. "There is a huge array of political problems here. It's important that the new leadership makes clear that it is ushering in a new era," he said.