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Madagascar to Vote in Controversial Constitutional Referendum

Transitional government leader Andry Rajoelina, foreground left, gestures, at a rally, in Antananarivo, Madagascar, Mar 2009 (file photo)

Transitional government leader Andry Rajoelina, foreground left, gestures, at a rally, in Antananarivo, Madagascar, Mar 2009 (file photo)

Voters in Madagascar will decide Wednesday on a new constitution that its supporters hope will end the crisis caused by the ouster of President Marc Ravalomanana.

In the days leading up to Wednesday's Madagascar referendum, supporters of the proposed constitution - led by the president of the transitional government, Andry Rajoelina - campaigned across the island nation.

They were promoting the new charter as a step toward stability, following a political crisis marked by the military-backed coup that ousted Mr. Ravalomanana nearly two years ago.

Constitutional changes

The new constitution, if passed, would consolidate Mr. Rajoelina's hold on power and lead to elections next year.

It would lower the minimum age for a presidential candidate from 40 to 35 years old. Mr. Rajoelina is 36, but has said he would not be a candidate for the presidency.

The new constitution also would require presidential candidates to live in the country for at least six months prior to the elections. This would block Mr. Ravalomanana, who has been in exile since the coup.

The document does not set a time limit on the transitional government, which would allow Mr. Rajoelina to remain in power as long as the standoff continued.

Opposition groups

The three main opposition groups, led by Mr. Ravalomanana and two other former presidents, reject the vote and have called for a boycott.

A resident of Antananarivo, Jacqueline Ramamonjisoa, said the opposition is the problem because the people want elections. She said the opposition groups should "not try to cause trouble. The right to vote does not belong to one person, but to all the Malagasy people."

Another resident of the Malagasy capital, Njaka Rabenatoandro, said the referendum cannot restore stability to the country unless it is supported by the international community.
He said the election will not solve anything because the solution is to find a way for the international community to recognize Madagascar - and as of now, it does not.

International support lacking

The African Union and Southern African Development Community suspended Madagascar following the coup. Western donors have withheld hundreds of millions of dollars worth of non-humanitarian aid.

International negotiators mediated a series of power-sharing deals between Mr. Rajoelina and the main opposition leaders. They collapsed, though, after the rivals failed to agree on how to share the top posts.

A coordinator with the Johannesburg-based Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy (in Africa), Nirina Rajaonarivo, said the vote is not likely to change the situation.

Rajaonarivo said if the "yes" vote wins and voter participation is very low, that will undermine the credibility of the referendum.

If the "yes" vote wins and turnout is very high, she said the transitional government will declare victory and legitimacy.

Finally, she said, a question hanging over the process is if the "no" vote were to win, would the transitional government accept the verdict and seek another round of the negotiations with the opposition?

Rajaonarivo said the lengthy political confrontation has hurt the economy and jobs. She said many Malagasies and observers foresee an even deeper crisis, especially in the economic and social sectors, because Madagascar is heavily dependent on foreign aid. Without the support of the international community she said conditions are not likely to improve.

Mr. Rajoelina has said he is prepared to seek economic partners other than his country's traditional allies. He reportedly has made overtures to China, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran, among others.