Antananarivo - Bitter rivals Andry Rajoelina and Marc Ravalomanana may have opted out of Madagascar's presidential race, clearing a key hurdle to ending a long-running political crisis, but analysts warn the pair will likely pull strings from behind the scenes.
News that the arch-enemies had agreed to step aside received a global thumbs-up and raised hopes that a post-coup deadlock may be edging to its end after dogging the Indian Ocean island for four years.
But a cloud of uncertainty still hovers over the elections, and analysts say that exiled ex-president Ravalomanana and Rajoelina, the man who ousted him, will remain heavy-weight political players despite being out of the race in theory.
"Rajoelina wants to be president in 2018," and so "he must be president now, even (it is) by proxy, to prepare for 2018," said Guy Ratrimoarivony of the Centre for Diplomacy and Strategic Studies in Madagascar.
Given the power tussle between the arch-rivals, "Ravalomanana will do the same", Ratrimoarivony said.
Powers behind the proxies
The protagonists are looking at "proxies that they are going to push who will run in the election and they become the powers behind those proxies", said Trevor Maisiri, senior researcher for southern Africa with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
Strongman Rajoelina, who ousted Ravalomanana in 2009, said he was stepping aside to give the nation a fresh chance, but at the same time has already intimated that he would be back to "save" the country.
At just 38 years old, he is unlikely to vanish from the country's politics and could be buying time to allow the dust to settle after ruling as transitional leader since his army-backed takeover.
In the upcoming vote, he will ensure that the electoral processes favour his candidate, said Maisiri.
"He will also try to ensure that Ravalomanana does not have the kind of capacity to prop up a credible proxy, that will give Rajoelina's proxy a good run for his or her money in the next election," he said.
The expected May date for a first round of polls is also uncertain.
Rajoelina is now trying to switch the election calendar, pushing for the parliamentary vote to run ahead of the presidential, a move seen as a ploy to swing back onto the political scene through the back door.
If his party wins, he could pull a Vladimir Putin-style manoeuvre and get appointed prime minister of the coup-prone island.
After serving two terms as president, Russian strongman Putin gave the reins to Dimitry Medvedev in 2008, becoming prime minister until the pair then went on to swap jobs.
Madagascar's prime minister post will be chosen by parliament under a new constitution -- which is also causing uncertainty as it has yet to be recognised internationally and by some on the local political scene.
"We could have another Russian scenario. Who knows if Rajoelina is not creating... that kind of scenario where in five or 10 years he is back as president of Madagascar," said Maisiri.
Regional bloc the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which mediated in the conflict, this week appealed to the Madagascar parliament to come up with a law that would grant amnesty for Ravalomanana.
Exiled in South Africa since 2009, he was convicted in absentia and sentenced to hard labour over the death of 36 protesters shot by his presidential guard.
The interior ministry has identified a surprisingly high number of contestants for the elections, with 216 parties and more than two dozen presidential candidates declared.
"What we seem to pick out is that as much as Rajoelina is out of the race, and Ravalomanana is out of the race, we still feel they are going to look at proxies," said Maisiri.