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Madagascar goes to the polls to pick next president

An electoral officer stands in front of the ballot box at a polling station of Faravohitra district during the first round of the presidential election, in Antananarivo, on November 7, 2018. (Photo by RIJASOLO / AFP)

Madagascar went to the polls on Wednesday to elect a new president, with a packed field of candidates led by three former heads of state pitching their ideas for ending a political crisis and boosting the economy.

Attempts by the most recent president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, to change the Indian Ocean island’s electoral laws this year backfired, sparking nearly three months of sometimes violent protests in the capital Antananarivo.

The demonstrators forced Rajaonarimampianina to accept a “consensus” government tasked with organising the election in an impoverished country burdened by a long history of coups and unrest.

Nearly 10 million voters are eligible to cast ballots for one of 36 candidates.

In addition to the three front-runners, the field includes two ex-prime ministers, pastors and a rock star. Polling stations are due to close by 1400 GMT.

Short queues formed at several polling stations in the capital, where the interior ministry estimated turnout was around 40 percent by midday.

In Toliara, the third city in the country’s southwest, turnout had reached 68 percent, according to the ministry, which added that voting was proceeding without incident.

“I hope there won’t be a post-election crisis, but as I see it the candidates are too arrogant,” said Eline Faraniaina, a retired 60-year-old, casting her ballot in Antananarivo. “No one wants to lose the election.”

Rajaonarimampianina is competing against two of his predecessors.

Marc Ravalomanana, a milk mogul, ruled from 2002 to 2009 and Andry Rajoelina, a former club night promoter nicknamed “the disc jockey”, succeeded him and was in power until 2013.

The trio staged massive rallies over the weekend in the capital, each attracting tens of thousands of supporters.

The former French colony has struggled to overcome political divisions after a disputed 2001 election that sparked clashes and a 2009 military-backed coup that ousted Ravalomanana.

Rajaonarimampianina has promised “a new phase” in Madagascar’s development if elected.

“I’m poor. I live hand to mouth, day to day. I don’t have anything to eat for tomorrow,” said Coledette, a mother-of-four angered by recent increases in the price of rice.

Expensive campaigns
A presidential contender must win 50 percent of votes cast to win outright, otherwise a second round will be held on December 19.

“The big risk of this election is that it will return us to an era of crisis,” said Sahondra Rabenarivo, an analyst at the Malagasy Observatory on Public Life.

“It’s very important that the results are credible and that the third-placed candidate accepts them.”

Tensions are high between Ravalomanana and Rajoelina, who succeeded him with the backing of the army in the 2009 uprising.

Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries, according to World Bank data, with almost four in five people living in grinding poverty.

The main contenders — armed with lavish campaign resources — have criss-crossed the island of 25 million by helicopter promising voters a better future.

Although there were bloody protests in April that left two people dead, campaigning has been peaceful.

‘Disgusted’
Some candidates have however been accused of vote-buying.

The head of Transparency International in Madagascar, Ketakandriana Rafitoson, was “disgusted” by what she says was the use of T-shirts, sewing machines and even floor tiles to secure votes.

Around 20 lower-profile candidates have alleged irregularities in the electoral roll and had unsuccessfully called for the poll to be delayed.

Both Ravalomanana and Rajoelina were banned from contesting the last elections in 2013.

Full unofficial results are expected by November 20, which must then be confirmed by the High Constitutional Court on November 28.

The court’s chief Jean Eric Rakotoarisoa has called on the candidates not to announce results “ahead of the final result”.

Cristian Preda, head of the European Union’s election observer team, said he hoped the vote would help “consolidate Madagascar’s democratic progress”.

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