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Madagascar Starts Voting in Referendum That May Legitimize Government

President Andry Rajoelina, a 36- year-old former DJ and mayor, is pushing for a “yes” vote in today’s Madagascan referendum on constitutional changes that opponents say aim to legitimize his rule after he seized power with the aid of the military.

The government, which has scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections for next year, says the referendum will help lift the country out of its 20-month diplomatic and economic isolation. The opposition is concerned Rajoelina will use a “Yes” vote to prolong his presidency, because the constitutional changes cut the minimum age of the president to 35 from 40.

Madagascar’s three main opposition parties are urging voters to abstain because they say the new constitution was drawn up without consultation and doesn’t give a deadline for the handover of power to a democratically elected government. The government reneged on a power-sharing accord brokered last year by international mediators.

“I want to demonstrate my dislike because they will try and use this vote to manipulate the international community and public opinion,” said Solofo Ralaboarisoa, an employee of Air Madagascar, who wasn’t voting and accompanied a friend to a polling station in the capital Antananarivo. “It’s a way of poisoning the people.”

The vote “is the one and only route left out of the crisis,” said Augustin Andriamananoro, special adviser to the president and head of the “Yes” campaign. “It is up to everyone to fulfill their civic duty and vote to restore constitutional order.”

Madagascar Suspended

Andriamananoro said he expects 70 percent to vote in favor of the changes, with a voter turnout of about 50 percent. The government has organized rallies with local pop stars to drum up support for the constitution. Polls opened at 6 a.m. and will close at 4 p.m.

“One of the government’s concerns is the lack of popular legitimacy,” said Harotsilavo Rakotoson, a lawyer and “No” campaigner. “They will use a positive result to pretend they have been elected by Madagascar’s people.”

On Nov. 2, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Karl Wycoff met with political parties and said the U.S. government didn’t recognize the referendum and political process supported by the current administration.

Madagascar was suspended from the African Union and had all non-humanitarian aid cut after Rajoelina, the mayor of Antananarivo, ousted his predecessor President Marc Ravalomanana in March last year. Foreign aid previously accounted for about two thirds of fiscal spending.

Economy to Contract

The island’s economy will contract 2 percent this year, the only African economy to shrink, according to forecasts by the International Monetary Fund. The government estimates expansion of 0.8 percent. Madagascar, the world’s biggest exporter of vanilla, had a gross domestic product of $8.55 billion in 2009, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook.

The new constitution says presidential candidates must be resident in the country for six months prior to elections. That would block Ravalomanana, who lives in exile in South Africa and was sentenced to life imprisonment by a Madagascan court in August for conspiracy to commit murder.

Sahondra Rabenarivo, a lawyer and “No” campaigner, said Rajoelina is portraying the referendum as a vote for change and an end to the crisis, without explaining the details of the constitutional changes that do nothing to limit presidential power in Madagascar.

“I fear the government will turn around to the international community and say ‘Look, we’ve been legitimized’,” Rabenarivo said.

Protesters Detained

Colonel Richard Ravalomanana, head of security for the central region, said he has deployed security forces to maintain order outside polling stations to prevent protests. Last week 21 people were detained, including three leaders of the main opposition parties, during demonstrations against the referendum.

Pierrot Rajaonarivelo, head of the opposition Madagascar Democracy Movement, said he expects the “No” campaign to win in the capital, Antananarivo, while the “Yes” vote wins in the rest of the country. The international community won’t accept the results if less than 50 percent vote, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Hannah McNeish in Antananarivo via Johannesburg at 1999 or pmrichardson@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Antony Sguazzin in Johannesburg at asguazzin@bloomberg.net.

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