Madagascar Seeks End to Isolation in First Post-Coup Vote

Madagascar is holding its first presidential vote since former disc jockey Andry Rajoelina took power in a military-backed coup in 2009 that left the nation gripped by international isolation and economic stagnation.

Thirty-three candidates are competing tomorrow to replace Rajoelina, who deposed President Marc Ravalomanana almost five years ago, causing the African Union to suspend the country and donors including the U.S. to freeze at least $400 million in aid. That forced the government to scale back services including education, water and health care, deepening poverty in the world’s second-biggest vanilla-producing nation.

Among the top contenders are former Finance Minister Hery Rajaonarimampianina; Jean Louis Robinson, a medical doctor and former cabinet minister under Ravalomanana; Roland Ratsiraka, a nephew of ex-President Didier Ratsiraka; and ex-Foreign Minister Pierrot Rajaonarivelo.

“Everyone is keen to avoid any semblance of unfair, un-free, violent elections,” Robert Besseling, senior political adviser at IHS Global Insight, said by phone from Johannesburg on Oct. 22. “But in the end none of the people running are the key political influences in the country; they are proxies for Rajoelina and former presidents Ravalomanana and Ratsiraka.”

Rajoelina, Ratsiraka, Ravalomanana and his wife, Lalao, are barred from running. The three men will remain influential figures and still wield power from behind the scenes after the vote, U.S.-based Strategic Forecasting Inc. said in an e-mailed note on Sept. 18.

“Barring them from candidacy could result in a backlash as their supporters respond with violence,” Stratfor said.

Economic Stagnation

Under Rajoelina, economic growth ground to a halt. The tourism industry, worth $390 million-a-year before the coup, declined as much as 50 percent, and exports, especially textiles, suffered after the U.S. suspended Madagascar from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which enables duty-free, quota-free access for some goods to the U.S. market.

The economy has posted no growth in the past four years, compared with an average 5.7 percent annual expansion in the four years before Rajoelina took power, according to International Monetary Fund data. The IMF forecasts growth will accelerate to 3.8 percent in 2014 from an estimated 2.6 percent this year.

More than 90 percent of the country’s 23 million people lives on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank. The country is ranked 151 out of the 187 countries on United Nations Human Development Index, which measures social and economic indicators.

Titanium Mine

Rio Tinto Plc, based in London, has a $5 billion titanium mine in the country, Canada’s Sherritt International Corp. has a 40 percent stake in the Ambatovy nickel operation, and Lemur Resources Ltd., a Perth, Australia-based coal-exploration company, runs the Imaloto thermal-coal project.

The withdrawal of foreign aid, which previously accounted for 40 percent of the budget, forced the government to slash expenditure, according to a 2012 U.S. Congressional Research Service report.

“Development challenges in Madagascar have been compounded by periodic political unrest that has hampered economic growth and limited public investment,” according to the report. “With most donor aid to the government currently suspended due to the 2009 coup, public spending has dramatically decreased.”

First Round

If no one wins 50 percent of support in the first round, a run-off vote will be held on Dec. 20, along with parliamentary elections. More than 7.8 million registered voters are eligible to cast a ballot at about 20,000 polling stations across the country between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Provisional results are expected between Nov. 2 and Nov. 8 and the final outcome will be announced by Nov. 23, according to the Antananarivo-based electoral commission’s website.

“This election is important, as it should help us to end the political crisis,” said Juvence Ramasy, a political analyst with the University of Toamasina. “We’re not sure if it will be able to do this.”

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