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Madagascar Military Negotiates with Mutineers; Country Awaits Referendum Results

Madagascar's leader Andry Rajoelina speaks to the press after casting his vote at a local polling station in Antananarivo, 17 Nov 2010

In Madagascar, military supporters of President Andry Rajoelina say they are negotiating with a group of officers who declared a coup Wednesday. The coup attempt came as the country voted on a new constitution.

The streets of Antananarivo were calm and stores and businesses opened as usual one day after a group of military officers announced they were suspending the transitional government of Madagascar's President Andry Rajoelina.

Rebel spokesman Colonel Charles Andrianasoavina called for all the armed forces to support the overthrow. He said the military council was seizing power because of the political situation, which has still not been resolved after 18 months.

Prime Minister Camille Vital said loyalist officers were talking to the mutineers, whom he said numbered no more than 20. But he said his government would take a tougher stance if the talks failed.

The mutiny took place as voters decided in a referendum whether to adopt a new constitution. Supporters hoped the new charter would end a political crisis provoked by a military-backed coup last year that brought Rajoelina to power.

Legal expert Sohandra Rebenarivo said the main purpose of the proposed charter is to consolidate Mr. Rajoelina's power.

"Voting yes on this constitution was voting yes for the transition government," said Rebenarivo. "And they are legitimized as the government in power until such time as they decide to hold legislative and presidential elections. And there is no time limit for them to do that."

She said the new constitution gives parliament the power to name the prime minister but otherwise makes few substantive changes to the previous document.

The new charter also reduces the minimum age of presidential candidates from 40 to 35 years. Rajoelina, 36, has said he is not a candidate for the presidency.

The proposed constitution would also require presidential candidates to live in the country for at least six months prior to the election. This would prevent former president Marc Ravalomana from running for the office. He has been in exile since he was ousted in last year's coup.

The referendum was rejected by three main opposition parties led by Ravalomanana and two other former presidents. It has also been dismissed by the African Union, the Southern Africa Development Community and most Western governments.

Some voters expressed enthusiasm for the new constitution, but Rebenarivo said many did not go to the polls.

"The reaction is muted," noted Rebenarivo. "There is absolutely no enthusiasm because I think everyone knows that we are not out of the woods and it is anyone's guess what is going to happen in the weeks and months ahead."

Following last year's coup, Western governments suspended most non-humanitarian aid and Madagascar's economy has been hard hit by fall in foreign investment.

Mr. Rajoelina says he is prepared to move ahead without his country's traditional allies and reportedly has lined up several major deals, primarily with Chinese investors.