Madagascans began voting Friday for a new president and parliament in run-off elections that many hope will restore political and economic stability to the country after years of turmoil.
The island nation was plunged into crisis by Andry Rajoelina's 2009 coup, which paralysed much of the government and caused foreign donors to cancel aid - both contributing factors in a four percent decline in the economy in the years since.
Both Rajoelina and the man he ousted in March 2009, Marc Ravalomanana, were blocked from running in the elections, the first since the coup, amid international pressure over fears of a return to violence.
Instead, proxy candidates took part and won the two top places during a first round of voting on October 25.
Freemason doctor and former health minister Jean Louis Robinson is seen as a slight favourite after winning 21.16 percent in the first round.
He enjoys the support of exiled leader Ravalomanana, who spoke at his rallies via phone from South Africa.
His opponent, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, an astute businessman and former finance minister under Rajoelina, won 15.85 percent.
It is hoped smooth elections will allow the country to turn the page on its political crisis, while also helping to restore the confidence of mining and other investors, revive the battered tourist industry and re-open the aid taps to a country of 22 million people, of whom nine out of 10 live on less than $2 a day.
“Elections should end the fuzzy situation of transition and return the constitutional order and international recognition,” said Didier Andriamanantena, a 22-year-old student, before the vote, which will be followed by a count likely to last days.
“But they are not the solution to all our problems. The new leaders should quickly face a difficult economic and social situation,” he said, speaking on the streets of the capital, Antananarivo, where a cash-strapped government has let rubbish pile up.
But old rifts could persist and threaten the possibility of a new period of stability for the country.
With neither candidate scored a commanding victory in October’s first round, voters may not deliver a clear mandate to either Robinson or Rajaonarimampianina.
Parliamentary polls also taking place on Friday could lead to one camp holding the presidency and the other controlling the legislature, perhaps forcing them into a power-sharing deal.
Some fear such an outcome could lead to further confrontation between political rivals.
Much hangs on how the loser reacts and whether the army, which had backed Rajoelina, stays in its barracks this time.
Candidates from Rajoelina's camp won more than 50 percent in the first round, but not all of these have supported Rajaonarimampianina's bid.
If voters followed their first-round candidates' endorsements, Robinson would get 42.9 percent of the ballots, and Rajaonarimampianina 34.3 percent.
Should he win, Robinson has vowed to allow his mentor Ravalomanana to return to the country.
Polls opened at 6:00 am (0300 GMT) and officially close at 5:00 pm (1400 GMT), though stations will stay open to serve people already in the queue by then.
Election authorities have said they have solved mishaps that affected the October vote, including restoring the names of 168,000 people left off the voters' roll.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)
Date created : 2013-12-20