Ex-rulers favourites in Madagascar's high-stakes election

Madagascar votes on Wednesday in a high-stakes election with three ex-presidents the front-runners to lead the large Indian Ocean island rocked by tensions earlier this year.

Attempts by the most recent president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, to change electoral laws backfired and sparked nearly three months of protests in the capital Antananarivo.

The demonstrations forced Rajaonarimampianina to accept a "consensus" government tasked with organising the election in the poor country with a history of coups and civil unrest.

Nearly 10 million voters are eligible to select a president from a list of 36 candidates who include four former presidents, two ex-prime ministers, pastors and a popular rock singer.

Rajaonarimampianina is competing against two of his predecessors: Marc Ravalomanana, a milk mogul who ruled from 2002 to 2009 and Andry Rajoelina, a former party organiser nicknamed the disc jockey who succeeded him and was in power until 2013.

The former French colony has struggled to overcome political divisions after a disputed 2001 election that sparked clashes and a 2009 military-backed coup that ousted Ravalomanana.

Apart from protests earlier this year, Rajaonarimampianina's tenure was mostly peaceful but anger over the past still simmers.

"The challenge of this year's election is to consolidate peace," Sahondra Rabenarivo, member of Sefaifi, a local observer organisation, told AFP.

But the multitude of candidates points to a "weakness of political parties" in the fragile democracy, he said.

'Poverty doesn't fall from sky'

The real battle in Wednesday's race is between Rajaonarimampianina and the former presidents Ravalomanana and Rajoelina, according to analysts and a pre-vote poll which was banned from publication in September, but a copy of which was obtained by AFP.

The survey, commissioned by the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation, gave Rajoelina 25% of votes, Ravalomanana 17% and 4% for Rajaonarimampianina.

Tensions run high between Ravalomanana and Rajoelina, who succeeded him with the backing of the army in the 2009 uprising.

With an extreme poverty rate of 76.2%, Madagascar is one of the world's poorest countries, according to World Bank data.

Faced with such grinding poverty levels, many voters see accessing water, electricity and jobs as their priorities.

"Poverty did not fall from the sky, it was created by politicians of this country," said Pedro Opeka, a popular Catholic priest who operates in one of the poorest parts of the capital.

"The people of Madagascar are suffering beyond measure and over the past 48 years I have seen this country go down year after year," he said.

At 60, Marie Raholiharilala, is still trying to eke a living by breaking granite rocks in an Antananarivo quarry.

"We are waiting for electricity and we want clean water in our homes," she said.

Frontrunners in helicopters

The trio of main contenders - with the resources to oil their campaigns - have criss-crossed the island of 25 million by helicopter promising voters a better Madagascar.

Rajoelina, 44, who unveiled details of his economic manifesto less than a week to the election, wants to make the eastern port city of Tamatave the "Miami" of Madagascar.

He also plans to instal electronic tracking devices on cattle, to curb widespread cattle theft, while his rival Ravalomanana promises to use drones to fight the problem.

Ravalomanana, a former milkman from a peasant family who went on to build a milk and yogurt business, also promises to equip school children with electronic tablets.

Despite the bloody protests that left two people dead in April, campaigning has so far gone smoothly.

The candidates have however been accused of vote buying. Head of Transparency International in Madagascar Ketakandriana Rafitoson, is "disgusted" by what she says is the handing out of T-shirts, sewing machines and even floor tiles to buy voters.

Still, the election is also seen as an opportunity for rivals Ravalomanana and Rajoelina to settle their scores through the ballot box, according to commentators.

Both were banned from running during the last elections in 2013.

Ravalomanana, who until 2014 lived in exile in South Africa after his removal from office, is still bitter after his ouster by Rajoelina in the coup that left the island internationally isolated and struggling with a legacy of bitter divisions.

Rajoelina, a former mayor, party planner and successful entrepreneur is banking on his youth and communication skills to rally support.

Around 20 smaller candidates have alleged irregularities in the voters roll and have unsuccessfully called for a poll delay.

If none of the hopefuls garners more than 50% of the votes cast, a second round will be held on December 19.

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