Thousands demonstrate against new Madagascar president

About 3,000 supporters of former Madagascar President Marc Ravalomanana took to the streets in the capital, Antananarivo, to protest the President Andry Rajoelina's army-backed takeover of the island.


REUTERS - Thousands of opponents of Madagascar's new president, Andry Rajoelina, rallied on Monday for the first of what they said would be daily protests against his army-backed takeover on the Indian Ocean island.


Unrest prior to Rajoelina's rise killed 135 people, crippled the $390 million-a-year tourism industry and unnerved foreign investors in the important mine and oil sectors.


Witnesses said about 3,000 supporters of former president Marc Ravalomanana, who stepped down last week after a seven-year rule, gathered in an Antananarivo park for several hours from Monday morning, chanting slogans and pledging resistance.


"I am here to show my refusal to accept the transitional government. Ravalomanana had two more years left. Why didn't they wait for elections and listen to the Malagasy people?" said schoolteacher Olga, who declined to give her surname.


The demonstrators had planned to march to the same May 13 square where Rajoelina held months of near-daily protests that pressured Ravalomanana to stand down.


They dispersed, however, when an army vehicle pulled up and fired a shot, apparently in warning, into the air.


"We have not finished yet!" the crowd chanted in Malagasy, pledging to protest daily through the week.


Rajoelina, who is Africa's youngest president at 34, does appear to have strong support among the young and poor in the capital. He also has the military top brass behind him.


But analysts say Rajoelina, who galvanised the support of opposition parties to oust Ravalomanana, still remains vulnerable to divisions within the army and people.


"Ravalomanana's support goes fairly deep and there will be a feeling that Rajoelina is weak, so there will be pressure on him to act," said Stephen Ellis, African studies professor at the Free University of Amsterdam.





Ravalomanana supporters have been buoyed by widespread international condemnation of Rajoelina's rise as a coup.


The African Union has suspended Madagascar in protest. It and the European Union called Rajoelina's takeover a coup.


Washington and Norway have cut aid.


"We cannot accept the seizure of power by arms and force," a spokesman for Ravalomanana's party, Raharinaivo Andrianantoandro, told the demonstrators.


"We want first of all a return to legal order and the re-establishment of institutions," he said, asking for independent political reconciliation talks.


The new leader, a businessman and former disc jockey with little political experience beyond nearly two years as Antananarivo mayor, was holding a cabinet meeting on Monday.


Civil servants milled outside, hoping to return to their desks. "It will be good to be able to go back to work. It has been hard for us," said one woman who cooks at the city centre palace where the president and ministers were meeting.


Having presented themselves as a pro-democracy, reformist movement fighting an old-fashioned dictator, Rajoelina's camp is stung by the widespread international disapproval.


He is six years too young to be president, according to Madagascar's constitution. Rajoelina says he is president of a transitional authority not the republic, and has pledged to organise new elections within two years.


Foreign nations say a vote should be held much sooner than that. Among them is former colonial power France, who some analysts say is tacitly backing Rajoelina.


The whereabouts of Ravalomanana, 59, remain unknown.


He has gone to ground since leaving his residence on Tuesday and handing power to the military.


The military conferred power, in turn, on Rajoelina.


Multinationals in Madagascar's fast-developing minerals and hydrocarbon industries are waiting to find out their fate after Rajoelina's government said it may re-negotiate any deals deemed not in the public interest.


The new president has, however, pledged to maintain the free-market economic policies of his predecessor, while stamping out waste and corruption, and paying more attention to poverty.

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