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Confusion reigns over Madagascar coup claims

A tense calm gripped Madagascar Thursday, a day after PM Camilla Vital (pictured) told FRANCE 24 that the situation in the island nation was under control following a declaration by a group of army officers who had attempted a coup d’état.

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A day after Madagascar’s Prime Minister Gen. Camille Vital dismissed coup claims in an interview with FRANCE 24, a tense calm reigned in the capital of Antananarivo as the international community scrambled to read the political tealeaves in the Indian Ocean island nation.

Reporting from Antananarivo Thursday, FRANCE 24’s Nicolas Baker said there was no sign of an excessive military presence in the streets or at key sites in the capital. “People here are baffled. Today, everything seems normal,” said Baker. “There is no excessive military presence downtown even though some of the dissident military officers said (Wednesday) that they were going to takeover the presidential palace and the airport.”
NICOLAS BAKER REPORTS FROM IVATO, MADAGASCAR
 
The mutinous military officers who claimed to have seized power were apparently holed up in their barracks negotiating with the regime Thursday, AFP reported, quoting an unnamed military source.
 
In an interview with FRANCE 24 Wednesday evening, Vittal said that the situation in his country was “under control”, after soldiers earlier in the day declared they had taken power
 
Madagascar has been engulfed in a deep political crisis since December 2008, when President Andry Rajoelina, then mayor of Antananarivo, led a movement against unpopular President Marc Ravalomanana. Under pressure from both the army and civilians, Ravalomanana handed over power to a military leader who, in turn, transferred leadership of the island nation to Rajoelina.
 
An attempted coup at a crucial moment
 
The latest political twist came at a key time for Madagascar, as the impoverished nation held a controversial constitutional referendum on whether to decrease the minimum age for a president from 40 to 35 years.
 
Rajoelina, the current president and a former DJ, is 36.
 
The referendum vote was presented by Rajoelina’s camp as a first step to end the political crisis that has paralysed the country for the past two years. Legislative and presidential elections are expected to be organised for 2011. “This referendum is a date with history,” said Augustin Andriamananoro, director of the campaign to vote “yes”. “The new constitution will correct the errors of the past concerning abuses of power and would establish a social contract between leaders and citizens.”
 
Rajoelina looking for legitimacy
 
But Madagascar’s opposition figures and international experts disagree. “The referendum is a forced manœuvre by Rajoelina to further strengthen his power and obtain legitimacy,” said Franck Ramarosaona, a political scientist and executive editor of daily newspaper Le Courrier de Madagascar in an interview with FRANCE 24. “You just had to see the campaign: it was based on Rajoelina himself, not on the referendum,” he added.
 
With the opposition boycotting the poll, turnout in Wednesday’s referendum was only 40 percent, according to provisional results by the country’s electoral agency.

“The opposition did not succeed in making itself heard [during the campaign on the referendum],” added Philippe Hugon, director of research on Africa at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS). “The ‘yes’ votes will likely prevail. But turnout could be low, which would deprive Rajoelina of the legitimacy he is seeking.”

 
Indeed, despite a referendum campaign that often seemed as omnipresent as a presidential campaign – T-shirts were distributed, grand promises made, and high-profile political meetings called – the vote did not arouse much enthusiasm among the people of Madagascar.
 
“There is a great fatigue amongst the people of Madagascar,” explained Ramarosaona. “I fear a new crisis, as violent as the one in 2002 [which resulted in 100 people being killed in riots that broke out at the time of the presidential election].”
 
The discontent on the island is exacerbated by increasing unemployment and a catastrophic economic situation. The country, one of the poorest in the world, has been sinking further and further into an economic crisis since the EU, France, the US, and the UN suspended their aid in the wake of Rajoelina’s power grab in 2009.
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