Madagascar's presidential runoff pits 2 ex-heads of state

Marc Ravalomanana and Andry Rajoelina (File: AFP)
Marc Ravalomanana and Andry Rajoelina (File: AFP)

The Indian Ocean island nation of Madagascar goes to the polls on Wednesday for a runoff presidential election that features two former heads of state who have a prickly past.

Andry Rajoelina received 39 percent of the vote in the first round, while Marc Ravalomanana got 35 percent. They face off for the first time since political turmoil in 2009 forced Ravalomanana from power. Both have said they will accept the runoff's results.

The capital, Antananarivo, is vibrant in the final days before the vote with the orange T-shirts of Rajoelina and the white and green ones of Ravalomanana worn by hundreds of supporters. Minibuses fill the streets with ringing chants for one candidate or the other.

Ten million voters are registered in what the World Bank calls one of the world's poorest nations, though one rich in ecological diversity. More than two-thirds of the population of 25 million live in extreme poverty, while corruption is widespread.

The 44-year-old Rajoelina says Madagascar needs a young leader and he pitches grand plans for the future. He was president from 2009 to 2014 during a transitional government.

Tense history

"I will build a factory that makes solar panels so that every home will have electricity," he vowed during a rally on Friday in Miandrivazo in the central part of the country. The previous day he promised 10 helicopters to help a rural southern community combat banditry.

For his part, the 69-year-old Ravalomanana, who led Madagascar from 2002 to 2009, is appealing to voters based on his experience.

"You need a competent, mature leader," he said in a speech in the capital early this month.

The rivals have used the campaign to snipe at each other, highlighting their tense history.

"We need a democrat, not a putschist. We will not accept a president who divides the country," Ravalomanana said. He had to quit the presidency in 2009 after a series of military-backed challenges supported by Rajoelina, who was the capital's mayor at the time.

For his part, Rajoelina has responded that "we must fight against dictatorship and egoism."

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In a poor neighborhood of the capital, Manarintsoa Atsinanana, the candidates' promises are inspiring few people to dream.

"I'm one of those people who will never be convinced because no matter who it is, Ravalomanana or Rajoelina, they'll never put any food on my plate. They ignore the people's poverty," Tatiana Rabenirina said bitterly. She stood in front of her tiny home fashioned from planks and other odds and ends.

"It doesn't matter who's elected. They don't care. We'll get by alone," the mother of four children said.

Residents said their demands are simple. "All I need is to live in security and that the price of rice is affordable. But it's difficult to have hope when you know you can't even have that," said Joseph Randriamiaina, who sells charcoal in the neighborhood.

"Whoever wins, he'll be the president of us all," said taxi driver Richard Rakotobe. "All we ask is that there isn't any trouble."

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