Madagascar candidates battle for attention

Whoever can get their name out to the most people stands a good chance of being in the top two.


    The Malagasies like a loud election campaign. All over the capital Antananarivo there have been vehicles smothered in candidates' posters, blaring music so loud you can barely hear yourself think and supporters waving flags and dancing jubilantly, as if giving the impression of already having won will instill confidence in voters and ultimately lead to victory.

    Friday's ballot is hotly contested and long awaited. Since Andry Rajoelina seized power in a military-backed coup he's been under immense international pressure to hold an election. The voting has been delayed several times leading many Malagasies to wonder if it would ever happen but finally on October 25, they will get the chance to restore democracy.

    But one of the conditions of the SADC (Southern African Development Community) brokered roadmap to democracy is that neither Rajoelina, nor the man he ousted, Marc Ravalomanana, is allowed to stand. So Malagasies won't get the chance to settle that long-running feud. However, everyone I've spoken to here says they want change, new faces and a "new way of doing politics".

    Will it be "free and fair"? That really depends on how you look at it. There are over 1,000 election observers in the country and they're supposed to make their pronouncement on Sunday. But in terms of the candidates (and there are a whopping 33!) only a few are serious contenders - which comes down to money.

    Only the rich can campaign effectively and they're not obliged to reveal how much they're spending or where the money's come from. Several government ministers are in the running and many candidates own their own media houses for self-promotion.

    Last night I went to Hery Rajaonarimampianina's last campaign event, a live TV interview, just him and three well-respected journalists asking him questions in front of a studio audience. It was quite a production - one he paid for himself. Whoever can get their name out to the most people stands a good chance of being in the top two. This is just the first round. If no candidate gets 50 percent (which seems unlikely given there are 33 of them in total) then the top two go to a second round on December 20.

    With 80 percent of Malagasies living in rural areas candidates have been hiring helicopters and flying all over the country. Many villages are inaccessible by road and to those that can be reached, the roads are in such a dreadful condition it's quicker to fly. The candidates are delivering hope and T-shirts to people who've been suffering in the political and economic crisis. Many of them are also illiterate so the logic goes that if you can physically be seen by the greatest number of people and leave T-shirts and leaflets behind with your image on them, then when people are in the ballot box with a big sheet of paper that has a photo of every candidate on it you're going to tick the box beside the one you recognise.

    Although neither Rajoelina nor Ravalomanana is standing in the election they're not out of the picture all together. Each is linked to one or another candidate who, if elected, could try and make either their prime minister.

    In Ravalomanana's case that isn't an easy option as he's still living in exile (in South Africa) and can't return, having been found guilty and sentenced to a prison term after being tried in absentia over the killing of 40 protesters by his presidential guard in demonstrations shortly before he was overthrown. He denies it. But candidate Jean Louis Robinson says if he's elected he'll make Ravalomanana's wife Lalao his prime minister which would inevitably lead to a push to bring the former president back. For Rajoelina the post of prime minister is a very real possibility - he also enjoys the support of the military.

    Away from the who's and how's, any manipulation or conspiracy theories, most Malagasies are consumed with the basics of life, trying to earn some money, keeping their families safe and fed. That's where what's happened in Madagascar really hits home. During this crisis more and more people have been pushed into poverty. The World Bank says 92 percent of people here live below the poverty line on less than $2 a day making it one of the poorest countries on Earth.

    As sanctions continue to bite and social spending is slashed, there are tears and rips around the edges of society. What's particularly frightening is the impact on women and children. We visited the Rasoamiarantsoa family three sisters with 11 children between them.

    The whole time we were there, one was particularly worried about the whereabouts of her young daughter. When I asked why the women told me that more and more young girls are being raped, even some toddlers and babies. This was almost unheard of in Madagascar before 2009. Aid agencies collaborated what the women told me.

    Florette Rasoamiarantsoa told me all they want is a president who will look after the poor, and there are more now then ever.



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