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Madagascar Protests End, General Strike Continues - 2002-02-05

An opposition presidential candidate in the capital of Madagascar has called off the massive protests that have filled the streets for more than a week. But a general strike continues to paralyze the city's economy.

By mid-day, the usually bustling thoroughfare known as the Place of the 13th of May was nearly deserted, but not entirely. A few street vendors were still selling newspapers or traditional Malagasy crafts. A few cars still patrolled the streets.

But shops and offices were closed. Buses and most of the taxicabs disappeared from the streets.

University student Tovo Rasolofoarison thinks the plan to shut down the city succeeded. I really think that because every day there is many cars in Tana, and many people here. So that means that today is like Sunday," he said.

A day earlier, the same spot was clogged with people. Well over half a million protesters took to the streets to show their support for opposition presidential candidate Marc Ravalomanana.

For more than a week, similar rallies have clogged the streets of Antananarivo, or Tana, as the capital is commonly known. The protesters demand that Mr. Ravalomanana, the mayor of Tana, be declared president.

He won 46 percent of the vote in December's presidential election, according to official results. Current President Didier Ratsiraka came in second with 40 percent. The High Court has refused to declare a winner since neither man took more than 50 percent, and a second round of elections is scheduled for later this month.

But Mr. Ravalomanana claims the vote was rigged. He says he actually won 52 percent, and that no second round of voting should be necessary. He told his followers to go on strike and take to the streets.

The protests are set to resume Wednesday. But for one day, he has ordered his supporters to stay at home, and turn Tana into "a dead city."

For the most part, he got his wish. The capital has shut down. Even the airport closed again, after being open for three days. On Mr. Ravalomanana's orders, it is expected to reopen Wednesday, when a group of European officials is scheduled to arrive.

Mr. Ravalomanana hopes the Europeans will be able to conduct an independent audit of the first round of voting. If they verify that the results are genuine, he will agree to a second round.

Until then, the strike continues. The mayor is wildly popular in the capital, and many people here enthusiastically support his campaign of civil disobedience.

But not everyone. Mbolatiana Ndrimandrato has begun to feel the pinch after more than a week without work. "I have a young baby," she said. "I have to give food to my young baby. If they don't want to work today that means nothing to eat."

There are clearly others in the city who share her views. To some extent, a "hidden Tana" is still working behind closed doors. A few coffee shops are serving customers, but only inside - you cannot sit at the popular tables on the sidewalk.

A few taxicabs are still available outside hotels housing foreign journalists. But those taxi drivers are much less aggressive than usual in trying to attract customers. Many of them support Mr. Ravalomanana, and they do not want to make it obvious that they are still working.