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More Protests Seen in Madagascar - 2002-02-03

The capital of Madagascar is gearing up for another week of expected massive protests by supporters of an opposition presidential candidate. The city has been quiet for two days following last week's general strike.

Sources close to opposition presidential candidate Marc Ravalomanana say the general strike is set to resume after two days of relative quiet.

The capital, Antananarivo, was essentially shut down last week during five days of massive street protests. Roughly half a million supporters of Mr. Ravalomanana took to the streets, demanding that he be declared president.

In the first round of elections held in December, he won more votes than current president Didier Ratsiraka. But the official results say neither man took more than 50 percent of the ballots, and so a second round of voting is scheduled for later this month.

Mr. Ravalomanana claims the election was rigged. He says his figures show he won 52 percent of the votes, and his supporters say no second round of elections should be necessary. He has called for a nationwide general strike in a bid to force the president to step down.

Mr. Ravalomanana is the mayor of Antananarivo and is wildly popular in the capital city. He has enough support to literally shut down the city. Residents say nothing was working last week, and the banks ran out of money by Thursday.

Many countries, including the United States and France, Madagascar's former colonial ruler, have called upon Mr. Ravalomanana to agree to a second round of voting. But his supporters say election officials must first find out what went wrong in the first round and correct those problems before voters go to the polls again.

Mr. Ravalomanana has indicated he will call off the strike if the electoral commission will agree to let a team of international observers conduct an audit of the first round.

Some business owners say they fear the strike will cripple Madagascar's economy, if it goes on much longer. The country is one of the main beneficiaries of the U.S. Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows African nations to import many goods to America duty-free. As a result, the textile industry had begun to enjoy a trade boom with the United States. But some business owners fear they will lose customers to other nations if they cannot fill their orders due to an extended work stoppage.

The general strike also stranded more than 1,000 foreign tourists in Madagascar, after the international airport shut down. But Mr. Ravalomanana temporarily called off the strike over the weekend, and the airport reopened Saturday long enough to allow many of the trapped vacationers to leave.

Things briefly returned to normal in the capital. Shops and street vendors did a bustling business in the city's main marketplace Sunday.

But after two days of relative calm, things are set to heat up again Monday morning. More than one-half million protesters are expected to return to the city center to renew their calls for President Ratsiraka to leave office.

Mr. Ravalomanana's support base is strongest in the capital, but the protests have spread to several other cities. Sources close to the opposition leader say they expect the general strike to affect most of the nation by the end of the week.

The protests in Antananarivo have been remarkably peaceful. Mr. Ravalomanana continues to call upon his supporters to avoid violence. However, some clashes did break out in one provincial town, Mahajanga, and an overnight curfew has been imposed there.