What’s at stake in Madagascar’s upcoming presidential election?

The impoverished country goes to the polls on Thursday after weeks of protests over alleged electoral irregularities.

Andry Rajoelina, president of Madagascar, salutes supporters in a 2018 campaign rally
Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina salutes his supporters during a campaign rally in Antananarivo, Madagascar on November 3, 2018 [Malin Palm/Reuters]

Madagascar goes to the polls on Thursday, November 16, after a month of turbulence that has seen opposition candidates taking to the streets and announcing a boycott amid allegations of electoral irregularities.

President Andry Rajoelina, a former DJ who first came to power with the backing of the army in 2009, is seeking a second consecutive term in office. But he may be floored by former judo champ Siteny Randrianasoloniaiko, a political ally recently turned foe.

Andry Nirina Rajoelina, President of Madagascar, arrives for the closing session of the New Global Financial Pact Summit in Paris
Andry Nirina Rajoelina, president of Madagascar, arrives for the closing session of the Summit for a New Global Financing Pact in Paris on June 23, 2023 [Lewis Joly/AP Photo]

The majority of the opposition, aligned in the so-called Collectif des 10  – a group of 10 candidates – is boycotting the election. The group has led street protests in the capital Antananarivo almost every day in recent weeks, several of which were dispersed with teargas, with police arresting scores of participants and bystanders.

The United Nations human rights office said that Malagasy security forces had used “unnecessary and disproportionate force” against peaceful protesters. Two candidates were injured in protests – one, Andry Raobelina, suffered an eye injury, forcing him to seek treatment in neighbouring Mauritius.

Amidst the growing turmoil, the High Constitutional Court last month ordered that the poll be postponed by a week to November.

Here’s a look at the main political actors and the issues in the election being held amid opposition boycott.

What’s the problem?

The Collectif des 10 claims that Rajoelina is not eligible to run for president because he was granted French nationality in 2014, which they say legally revokes his Malagasy citizenship. The law says that dual nationality is not allowed for people born in Madagascar – only naturalised citizens of Madagascar may retain their prior nationalities.

Rajoelina, 49, whose application to the French authorities was allegedly motivated by personal interests, enabling his children to pursue their studies in France, claims he has not been notified by the authorities of any loss of his Malagasy nationality.

“The law is clear, but nobody is taking the responsibility to apply it properly,” says William Rasoanaivo, locally known as POV, an award-winning political cartoonist exiled in Mauritius, who contributed to the newspaper L’Express de Madagascar until 2020. He believes that revocation of Rajoelina’s Malagasy nationality would also throw the president’s 2018 election win into question.

The opposition has also accused Rajoelina of tightening his grip on democratic institutions, exercising particular control over the electoral commission and the High Constitutional Court. An investigation published last week by Vaovao Check, a consortium of independent journalists, revealed that seven judges in the country’s highest court had close links to the ruling party, with three of the seven having been directly appointed by the president himself.

The Collectif, which includes two former presidents – Marc Ravalomanana and Hery Rajaonarimampianina – is demanding that the electoral commission be staffed with new personnel and that a special court be created for polling disputes.

The gravity of the crisis was underlined by the president of the National Assembly (the lower house of parliament), Christine Razanamahasoa, who last week called for the election to be suspended. A member of Rajoelina’s MAPAR coalition, her intervention was interpreted as a sign of the president’s growing isolation.

Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries, despite being rich in natural resources like nickel, cobalt and gold. Three-quarters of its 28 million inhabitants live below the poverty line.

A woman sits on the debris of her destroyed house
A woman sits on the debris of her destroyed house, in the aftermath of Cyclone Batsirai, in the town of Mananjary, Madagascar, February 7, 2022 [Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters]

While the country has held two peaceful elections since the military coup in 2009, weak governance and corruption make it particularly vulnerable to organised crime.

Its vast expanses of roadless countryside are fertile ground for armed cattle rustlers – known as malaso.  And its porous shoreline has made it a regional hub for heroin trafficking along the so-called “southern route” from Afghanistan to Africa.

Who’s Rajoelina and what led to his political rise?

In 2009, Rajoelina was the debonaire former DJ, who made the country swoon with a manifesto aimed at its youth. Back in the early 1990s, he’d made a name for himself as an event organiser, bringing over international DJs to entertain la jeunesse dorée, the “golden” offspring of the country’s elite.

“Everyone who wanted to be fashionable went to those parties,” says Rasoanaivo, the exiled cartoonist. Nobody was surprised, he says, when Rajoelina set up the successful advertising agency Injet, later becoming mayor of Antananarivo in 2007, a position viewed as a stepping stone to becoming president.

He unseated dairy tycoon Marc Ravalomanana as president after a military coup in 2009, taking the lead as head of the country’s transitional authority. After losing elections in 2014, he made a comeback in 2018.

Rasoanaivo observes that the president has carried that sense of showmanship from his party days all the way to the top, launching extravagant pet projects like the building of a Roman “Colosseum” on a hill overlooking the impoverished capital. The project, called Masoandro, or Sun in the Malagasy language, provoked outrage in the country, where half of all children under five suffer chronic malnutrition.

President of the Republic of Madagascar Andry Rajoelina
President of the Republic of Madagascar Andry Rajoelina (C) arrives at the Queen’s Palace of Manjakamiadana, in the upper city of Antananarivo, on November 6, 2020 [Mamyrael/AFP]

In an interview with the news agency AFP at the weekend, Rajoelina vowed to bring electricity to all households – currently only 30 percent are connected to the grid. Expressing confidence that he would win, he said he was drawing strength from the people and his wife but also, first and foremost, from the Lord.

The president has deployed civil and military infrastructure in his campaign, painting army helicopters in his party’s signature orange colour, says Rasoanaivo. This has raised questions about state support for his campaigning.

Facing off against the incumbent is judoka Siteny Randrianasoloniaiko, president of the African Judo Union and a vice-president of the International Judo Federation. Randrianasoloniaiko, a member of Rajoelina’s MAPAR coalition in the National Assembly, had recently been taking his distance from the president before deciding to mount his own electoral challenge.

The 51-year-old, who hails from a modest background in the town of Toliara in the south, joined the national Judo team in the 1990s, later making his fortune in the mobile telecommunications boom with Siteny Distribution. He has thrown vast amounts of money into what cartoonist Rasoanaivo terms an “aggressive campaign”, making foreign trips to rally the diaspora and hiring helicopters for visits to the poverty-ridden provinces.

His sporting activities have helped him forge a friendship with Marius Vizer, the Romanian president of the International Judo Federation, himself close to fellow judoka, the Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Are there fears of outside influences in the elections?

Questions have been raised about Russian involvement in the campaigns of both Rajoelina and Randrianasoloniaiko. “We are all asking ourselves whether Russia is backing both candidates,” says Rasoanaivo. “In the last election, they [the Russians] threw money in different places.”

Russian involvement in the last election was exposed in a 2019 Pulitzer-winning New York Times investigation, co-written by local reporter Gaelle Borgia. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the former leader of the Wagner Group, who was this year killed in a plane crash after leading a revolt against Putin, had bought a stake in a government-run company mining chromium.

It is widely believed that Rajoelina has also benefitted from French backing in the past. France, which colonised Madagascar from the late 19th century to 1958, has habitually intervened in national affairs.

After the 2009 coup, ousted president Ravalomanana claimed French involvement enabled Rajoelina to take power. “Today Madagascar is governed by a group of bandits, led by Andry Rajoelina and supported by the French,” he said afterwards. At the time there was an international scramble, including companies like French oil giant Total, for Madagascar’s mineral and hydrocarbon resources.

The opposition has urged France, which has provided financial support for the organisation of the election as part of a UNDP-led basket fund, to put pressure on Rajoelina to ensure the vote is free and fair.

This month, four opposition MPs met French ambassador Arnaud Guillois in Antananarivo expressing their concern at the country’s silence, which they charge is an implicit endorsement of the incumbent.

In a letter addressed to international organisations, but clearly aimed at Guillois, the Collectif warned of “bloodshed” in the streets and the threat of encouraging “Francophobia”, an allusion to anti-French sentiment that has recently spread throughout African countries like the Central African Republic and Mali.

Source: Al Jazeera