JOHANNESBURG— Madagascar holds a critical vote Friday, the first since a 2009 coup that plunged the African country into isolation. The road to the vote has been long and hard - elections have been postponed numerous times as coup leader Andry Rajoelina negotiated with regional leaders. Rajoelina and the president he ousted are not on this ballot, but each has a preferred candidate. A monitoring group will oversee this hotly anticipated poll.
The people of Madagascar have been waiting for this vote for four long years, ever since the young mayor of Antananarivo toppled the former president and seized power.
When Rajoelina initially took power, he promised a vote within two years. That didn’t happen, as he quarreled with regional negotiators over the terms of the election.
That poll has been postponed three times this year alone due to disputes over the candidate list. The wife of ousted president Marc Ravalomanana joined the ballot, prompting Rajoelina to mount a campaign despite his earlier assurance that he would stay out of the race.
The electoral court later struck both candidates, plus a former president, from the ballot.
Rajoelina has not publicly supported anyone, but his party has backed two candidates. The man considered the frontrunner is Hery Martial Rakotoarimanana Rajaonarimampianina. Former president Ravalomanana also has a preferred candidate.
Stephane Mondon is the field representative in Madagascar for the Carter Center election mission. He said the international monitoring group, founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, considers this to be a vital vote for the country.
“It’s very important for Madagascar because it’s going to be the first election since the coup in 2009. And there are a lot of challenges ahead with very new institutions, a new electoral commission that has been set up for this very election, and also some candidates that haven’t been accepted to stand for these elections. So the stakes are very high for the stability in the country and the return to constitutional order,” said Mondon.
He said that transition, however, may include several hurdles.
“One of the biggest challenges, of course, is access to the remote areas due to the topography of the country. There is also a very large number of presidential candidates, 33 - that’s a pretty large number for any presidential election," said Mondon. "The political context is also very challenging in terms of candidates who haven’t been authorized to run for the election and some of them are using proxy candidates, and it will be a challenge for this election. So the people, the voters, seem to be ready, but the politicians need to accept the outcome of the election. That’s a big question mark.”
With so many candidates, a runoff may be needed if no single candidate wins more than 50 percent of votes. That second round will be held December 20, together with parliamentary elections.
The new president will have a lot of work to do. The 2009 coup has plunged the nation into financial crisis. Development has slowed, and aid groups say the island’s 22 million people have suffered as poverty and malnutrition have increased. The nation also has recently been battered by storms, crop failures, and a return of the terrifying bubonic plague.