Antananarivo - Madagascar will hold elections on Friday in
an effort to end political tensions that erupted in a 2009 coup and lift the
aid-dependent country out of poverty.
The island nation, off Africa's east coast in the Indian
Ocean, plunged into turmoil after Andry Rajoelina, a former disc jockey and
mayor of the capital Antananarivo, seized power with the help of the military.
Ousted President Marc Ravalomanana went into exile in South Africa.
The coup resulted in the suspension of much-needed foreign
aid. Madagascar was suspended from the African Union and the 15-nation Southern
African Development Community, or SADC, until a constitutionally elected
government was restored.
With 33 candidates running in the election, it could prove
difficult for a clear winner to emerge in the first round. If none of the
candidates garners more than 50% of the votes, the two top candidates
will compete in a runoff scheduled for 20 December.
Nine candidates, including three key politicians, were
barred from taking part in the polls as part of a plan to resolve the political
crisis. Former presidents Rajoelina and Didier Ratsiraka and former president
Ravalomanana's wife, Lalao, were excluded for failing to comply with the
country's electoral laws.
The two front-runners are backed by Rajoelina and
Ravalomanana. Former finance minister Hery Rajaonarimampianina has been
endorsed by Rajoelina and medical doctor Robinson Jean Louis is Ravalomanana's
The nation's electoral body says more than 7.8 million
eligible voters will cast their ballots on Friday at 20 000 polling stations
across the nation.
Former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano, the regional
mediator from SADC, urged voters to "come out in their numbers to exercise
their democratic right to freely and peacefully vote for the leader of their
Years of spiralling poverty
"This is a very important day in the history of
Madagascar," Chissano said Thursday.
The United States-based Carter Centre said on Thursday it
has partnered with a local rights group, the Electoral Institute for
Sustainable Democracy in Africa, to be part of the 700 international observers
monitoring the polls.
The election results will be announced within 10 days after
Friday's vote will bring hope to the 22 million islanders
who have endured years of spiralling poverty since the 2009 coup, said Steven
Lauwerier, Unicef's representative in Madagascar. He said there is a sense of
hope and relief in Madagascar ahead of the election.
"They want a kind of change," said he said at a
news conference in Johannesburg this week.
Tourism in the island nation has taken a hit this year,
partly because of fears of unrest during the election campaign. The deaths of
two tourists at the hands of a mob on a northern tourist island early this
month also had a negative impact. Countries issued travel warnings after the
attacks and visitors stopped coming.
The killings of the tourists show "a distrust in the
justice system," Lauwerier said.
Poverty is a serious problem in Madagascar. The average
daily salary in rural areas is the equivalent of $1.10, and a kilogramme of
rice costs 75 cents, said Maherisoa Rakotonirainy, a representative of the UN
World Food Program in Madagascar. That leaves families struggling to pay for
cooking oil and other staples, as well as transport, education and other
Half of the country's children less than five years old
suffer from chronic malnutrition and more than 1.5 million children are not in
school, according to the UN Madagascar has also suffered from recurrent
cyclones that have devastated parts of the country.