The president of Madagascar has spoken to the news media for the first time since the beginning of a general strike that has shut the country down for the last two weeks. He says he is fed up with the opposition-led protests.
President Didier Ratsiraka came to this village on the southeastern coast of Madagascar to open a new bridge. But he also used the opportunity to show the international media that his opponent is not the only one who can attract a crowd of supporters.
About a thousand people greeted the president when his helicopter landed. Most of them were wearing his trademark party colors, red and white.
Mr. Ratsiraka invited about 15 foreign journalists along for the trip, promising them a rare chance to interview him. He flew them to the town in his own helicopters. The trip was clearly designed to show the media that he still has support in the rural parts of Madagascar.
The president's rival, Marc Ravalomanana, has attracted tens of thousands of supporters to his demonstrations in the capital, Antananarivo, every day for the last several weeks. Mr. Ravalomanana, the mayor of Antananarivo, has also called a general strike that has been widely observed in the capital.
For Mr. Ratsiraka, the strike has gone on too long. "If I was the mayor of Antananarivo, I should say this: I am a patriot," he said. "I am a nationalist. I look for the interest of Madagascar, not for my own interest. The economy loses $10 million per day. Let us go to the second round. It's enough! I am fed up with this!"
The standoff between the two presidential candidates started over December's presidential elections. Mr. Ravalomanana claims the vote was rigged to deny him an outright victory.
According to official results, he took 46 percent of the vote, compared to 40 percent for Mr. Ratsiraka. The high court has refused to declare a winner since neither man took more than half the votes, and 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.
At the rally in the capital on Friday, he said his door is open for negotiations with the president on how to find an end to the dispute.
The president, as he opened the new bridge in Nosy-Varika, told reporters he, too, is willing to talk with his rival. "I think that I have never cut the bridges between the opposition and myself," he said. "Any moment they like, I can accept discussion. I don't bear a grudge against them, they bear a grudge against me. I am not in the streets."
Mr. Ratsiraka vehemently denies there was any rigging in the first round of voting. He sounded much less conciliatory toward his opponent on that note. "I say that they have cheated, the opposition have cheated, not me... They have cheated," he said. "I have not cheated. I have no reason to cheat."
Independent political observers say there probably was some rigging by the ruling party in the first round, but not quite as much as Mr. Ravalomanana claims.
Regardless, the election's second round is rapidly approaching. It is not clear when the standoff will end. The official campaigning period starts Saturday, and the president says he is confident he will win. But all of the polls show him still trailing his opponent, and Mr. Ravalomanana continues to claim he has already won the presidency.