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Early Returns From Madagascar Election Show President Leading

In Madagascar, preliminary returns from Sunday's presidential election show the incumbent in the lead. International observers say the balloting was orderly, although they have criticized some aspects of the process. VOA Correspondent Scott Bobb reports from our Southern Africa Bureau in Johannesburg.

Election officials in Madagascar say voter turnout was relatively high in Sunday's presidential election. Most ballots from the capital region have been tabulated, although returns from some rural areas have yet to arrive.

President Marc Ravalomanana, a wealthy businessman, was running for a second five-year term against 13 challengers.

The director of the Elections Institute of Southern Africa, which monitored the vote, Dennis Kadima, says voting was peaceful, and he was impressed by the efficiency of the counting of the color-coded ballots.

"Different candidates had different colors [for ballots]. All they had to do was to take it out of the envelopes, and attribute it to the right candidate," said Kadima. "And that went quite quickly. We were quite impressed with that process."

However, he noted that ballot papers for four candidates were not available at some polling stations.

Under Madagascar law, candidates supplied their own ballots. This was criticized as unfair to less wealthy participants.

Several opposition candidates also complained that no public funds were provided for the campaign, which favored the incumbent.

Observer Dennis Kadima said that, although the voting was orderly, the election was tainted, because some politicians were prevented from participating.

"Strong, high caliber candidates were prevented, directly or indirectly, to stand in the election, if you see all the strong people who left the country in 2001 and 2002, and those who are in jail up to now," he noted.

The government refused to allow an exiled opposition leader, Pierre Rajaonarivelo, to return home to compete in the election.

And some politicians boycotted the vote, because it was held two months early, which they said was unconstitutional.

The head of the observer mission from the Southern Africa Development Community's Parliamentary Forum, Duke Lefhoko, said future elections should not be administered by the government.

"The government and people of Madagascar must set up an independent electoral commission," commented Lefhoko. "As long as elections are run from a ministry of government, there will always be the feeling they are both player and referee."

In the previous presidential elections, Mr. Ravalomanana and his opponent, then-President Didier Ratsiraka, both claimed victory, which led to a seven-month standoff that ended only when Ratsiraka fled into exile.