Madagascar Presidential candidate Andry Rajoelina salutes his supporters during a campaign rally at the Coliseum stadium in Antananarivo, Nov. 3, 2018.
Madagascar Presidential candidate Andry Rajoelina salutes his supporters during a campaign rally at the Coliseum stadium in Antananarivo, Nov. 3, 2018.

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - The island nation of Madagascar votes Wednesday, with four former heads of state vying for the top job in a pool of 36 candidates. Analysts predict this contest will go to a second round, and the nation's persistent problems, poverty, health challenges, poor infrastructure, and human rights abuses, will continue no matter who wins.

Voters in the island nation of Madagascar will see a crop of familiar names on this year’s ballot, as four former presidents are trying to get back into power among a crowded field of 36 candidates.

Pedestrians pass a wall with election posters in A
Pedestrians pass a wall with election posters in Antananarivo, Madagascar, Nov. 6, 2018 on the eve of elections in the Indian Island nation.

?That should surprise no one, said analyst Liesl Louw-Vaudran of the Institute for Security Studies.

“You have really a very poor country with a very small elite and they tend to all want to dominate the politics, and there’s really no organized political space, there are no dominant political parties,” she said.

Basically, poll-watchers say, this is a three-way race between the last three presidents: Marc Ravalomanana; the man who ousted him in a 2009 coup, Andry Rajoelina, and the man who succeeded Rajoelina but resigned in September so he could legally run for re-election, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, who for obvious reasons is often simply referred to as Hery.  

Analyst Piers Pigou of the International Crisis Group said Madagascar's presidency is not a job many would aspire to. The former French colony has been politically shaky for nearly two decades, the worst moment coming in 2009 with the coup that desposed Ravalomanana.

Presidential hopeful Marc Ravalomanana attends an
Presidential hopeful Marc Ravalomanana attends an election rally in Antananarivo, Madagascar, Nov. 3, 2018.

The nation is renowned for its biodiversity, its vanilla crops, and its stunning beaches, but also for its crushing poverty, recurrence of bubonic plague, and frequent, devastating cyclones.

“The socioeconomic indicators show that in the last five years, five or ten years, the situation has deteriorated rapidly," Pigou told VOA.  "And longtime Madagascar watchers say they haven’t seen it this bad in 30 to 40 years.  And the depth of poverty appears to be growing exponentially every year.  Now the the big challenge of course is, how does any new government turn around the economic prospects with limited raw materials, limited resources and limited opportunity?”
And, rights groups say, the challenge is more than economic. Watchdog Amnesty International says it has documented a recent spike in human rights violations and excessively harsh law enforcement.

Former Malagasy President and presidential candida
Former Malagasy President and presidential candidate Hery Rajaonarimampianina and and his wife Voahangy Rajaonarimampianina attend a campaign rally, Nov. 4, 2018, at the Colyseum stadium in Antananarivo.

Amnesty spokesman Robert Shivambu said the next president needs to deal with that.

“This begins by effectively protecting human rights defenders, including their right to freedom of expression, and releasing pre-trial detainees whose detention has been unjustified and have been enduring long jail terms for for petty and nonviolent crimes,” he said.

But Pigou said he doubts this election is about policies. As is all-too-common in the small circle of Malagasy politics, he says, this is a personality contest.

That, he said, is evident in campaigning around the single biggest issue in the country: the economy.

“I mean none of the candidates appear to have a serious economic plan that does anything more than perhaps tick some boxes from the international financial institutions in terms of ‘improve management’ and ‘improve accountability.’  We do not have a development plan on the table, and I think that is the biggest challenge,” said Pigou.

If no candidate wins 50 percent plus 1 vote, the top two candidates will face off on December 19.