Voters in Madagascar head to the polls on Thursday for the first round of a tense presidential election after weeks of opposition protests demanding a “fair and equitable” vote.
Outgoing President Andry Rajoelina, 49, is squaring off against 12 other candidates vying to take the reins of the Indian Ocean island nation, which has a long history of disputed elections.
This year seems no exception as the vote comes amid a deep political crisis that has played out in the courts and on the streets.
Press revelations in June that Rajoelina acquired French nationality in 2014 triggered calls for him to be taken out of the race.
Detractors said that under local laws the President was to lose Madagascan nationality and with it the ability to lead the country.
Rajoelina, who critics say has not been upfront about his dual citizenship, has denied trying to conceal it.
He became French “out of love” for his children, to allow them to pursue their studies abroad, he explained in the media.
In September, the country’s top court dismissed appeals to have Rajoelina’s candidacy declared void, sparking opposition anger.
But that was not the end of it.
As Rajoelina resigned in line with the constitution, in order to run for re-election, the president of the Senate, who was supposed to take over, declined for “personal reasons”.
The task was left to a “collegial government” headed by the prime minister, an ally of Rajoelina, sparking an outcry, with 11 opposition candidates decrying an “institutional coup” to favour the incumbent.
The group has since early October led near daily, unauthorised marches in the capital, Antananarivo, that have been regularly met by a strong police presence.
Often numbering a few hundred, attempts by the demonstrators to rally in the iconic May 13 Square, an emblem of political protest in the country, have been dispersed by security forces firing tear gas.
Numerous people have been injured and some candidates briefly detained during the weeks-long standoff.
The European Union, the United States and other members of the international community have voiced “deep concern” at the violence, denouncing the excessive use of force.
The 11 protesting opposition candidates have refused to campaign until conditions for a democratic election are met.
But the united front has not translated into a political coalition nor into a formal boycott of the vote.
Last week, the head of the lower house of parliament, who led a mediation group and was until then thought to be close to the President, called for the elections to be suspended.
But a spokeswoman for Rajoelina called the request “far-fetched” adding there was no reason not to press ahead.
The vote initially scheduled for November 9 had already been postponed for a week by the Constitutional Court after an opposition candidate was injured at a rally.
Comprising diverse interests and personalities, the opposition alliance is built on fragile foundations, and has little hope to change the status quo, according to political analysts and diplomatic sources.
Rajoelina first took power in 2009 on the back of a coup that ousted president Marc Ravalomanana, who is also running on November 16.
After not contesting in the 2013 election due to international pressure, Rajoelina was voted back into power in 2018.
A defeat on Thursday appears unlikely, with some suggesting there may be no need for a second round of voting on December 20.
Madagascar, which gained independence from France in 1960, is one of the poorest countries on the globe despite vast natural resources. Some 80 percent of the 28 million population live on less than 1.92 dollars per day.
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