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Rajoelina rides a wave of discontent

A weak purchasing power and a tightening of civil liberties lie at the root of much of the discontent fueling Antananarivo mayor Andry Rajoelina's popularity.


AFP - Economic hardship and shrinking civil liberties in Madagascar are the root of the discontent spearheaded by a charismatic young mayor against the regime, analysts said Sunday.

Antananarivo's 34-year-old mayor, Andry Rajoelina, upped the ante on Saturday when he proclaimed himself in charge of the country's affairs, accusing President Marc Ravalomanana of abandoning the people to their fate.

While the speed at which the political tension escalated on the Indian Ocean island may have surprised even Madagascans, the ingredients of a popular revolt had been there for months, observers said.



"It's not really a surprise. There was a latent malaise since last year caused mainly by the dire conditions in which the population lives, a drop in purchasing power, all this combined with a mood of defiance towards the regime," analyst Jean-Eric Rakotoharisoa said.

"In the last legislative elections in 2007, abstention levels in Madagascar reached record levels. It was the Madagascan people's peaceful way of saying there were serious problems," said Rakotoharisoa, a professor of constitutional law at Antananarivo University.

Over the past week at least 68 people have died in riots across the island following protests called by the new opposition leader.

Rakotoharisoa argued that what is now known in the impoverished country as "Daewoo scandal" had an impact on public opinion.

The huge South Korean conglomerate is believed to have been leased a huge chunk of farmland on the island -- some 5,000 square miles -- by the government.

"Land is sacred in Madagascar... and this project was seen as a kind of national treason," the academic explained.

The second dominant factor that triggered the political unrest of the past few weeks lies in what residents feel has been a tightening of civil liberties.

"The current crisis is caused by violations of democratic values," said Desire Ramakavelo, a former minister of armed forces in the nineties who holds a Phd in political science.

"There may be several newspapers, public and private radio and television channels... But the people's aspirations are not being taken into account," he said.

"The people are being treated like children who belong to their parents, the regime that is, whose task it is to give them what they need," Ramakavelo argued.

He added that the same issues had the same consequences when the island was rocked by political turmoil in 1972, 1991 and 2002.

"Freedom of expression is a tradition for Madagascans. It was a grievance in 1991 and 2002 and it is again today because these liberties are vanishing," said Rakotoharisoa.

He argued that national television was increasingly under government supervision and bemoaned the absence of a pluralist debate in the country's politics.

The latest unrest in Madagascar erupted when Rajoelina's television channel Viva was closed down by the authorities, sparking a wave of protests.

Both analysts explained that two options now presented themselves to the main protagonists of the Madagascar political crisis.

They can either agree on a national unity government or promote the creation of a government of technocrats and experts tasked with drafting a new constitution and preparing the ground for fresh elections.

Rakotoharisoa and Ramakavelo both ruled out a military coup.

"Anybody could have seized power on Monday and Tuesday. But here there is a strong loyalist tradition in the army," the constitutional expert explained.

"In Madagascar, since 1972, coups have been institutional," the former minister of armed forces said.


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