There was another massive street protest in the capital of Madagascar Thursday. Most businesses remain shut due to a general strike, called by an opposition presidential candidate. But the government is trying to carry on with business as usual, despite the disruption.
Life is anything but normal in much of the Malagasy capital. Many businesses have been closed for nearly two weeks, and daily street protests draw tens of thousands of people.
Government officials, however, are trying to act as if the ongoing demonstrations are only a minor distraction. According to Prime Minister Tantely Andrianarivo, business carries on as usual in most of the country. "If you look outside the province of Antananarivo," he says, "you see that it's not the same situation that we can see in Antananarivo."
To illustrate that point, the prime minister and several senior cabinet ministers attended a tree-planting ceremony Thursday about 30 kilometers outside of the capital.
With music blaring in the background, several hundred people spent about an hour planting a tiny Eucalyptus seedling on hillside in a rural area. It is part of an effort to restore some of Madagascar's natural forests. The mood was festive, and everybody seemed to have a good time.
The ceremony clearly had a dual purpose. Government officials are trying to send a message that they are not totally preoccupied by the strike and the street protests.
But the prime minister admits the situation is serious. The strike is seriously hurting the Malagasy economy. And there is clearly support for the opposition outside the capital. To get to the tree-planting, government officials had to pass at least ten busloads of opposition supporters on their way to Antananarivo from other cities to attend the protest.
The demonstrations and the general strike were called by opposition presidential candidate Marc Ravalomanana, who is also the mayor of Antananarivo.
Mr. Ravalomanana claims the December's presidential elections were rigged to deny him an outright victory. According to official results, he took 46 percent of the vote in December, compared to 40 percent for current President Didier Ratsiraka. The High Court has refused to declare a winner since neither man took more than 50 percent; a second round of elections is scheduled later this month.
But Mr. Ravalomanana claims he actually won 52 percent, and no second round of voting should be necessary. He has ordered his supporters to go on strike and take to the streets.
The prime minister and other senior officials say they are negotiating with Mr. Ravalomanana to try to find a way out of the situation.
But he also says the second round of voting will go ahead on schedule. The prime minister admits that there were irregularities in the first round, but he denies they really affected the outcome. And he says the government is taking steps to ensure that the second round is more transparent than the first.
"Have you seen an election process with zero irregularities?" asks Mr. Andrianarivo "I think it's quite difficult to assert that there were no irregularities in the election. So the goal is to try to reduce the irregularities."
Both sides in the standoff are hoping for help from the international community. Mr. Ravalomanana wants foreign delegations to conduct an independent audit of the first round of voting. If they verify that the results are legitimate, he says he will call off the strike and take part in the second round.
Ruling party officials have categorically rejected that. They say there is no legal precedent for that kind of audit. But they also say international observers will be on hand for the second round, and they hope those observers will help dispel any doubts about the validity of the final results.