The Indian Ocean’s vanilla island is set for its presidential election on November 7, with 36 candidates on the ballot. Two could advance to a possible run-off on December 19.
Madagascar is a tourist’s delight. It is lush with unique flora, arresting wildlife and is also sprinkled with Arab and French influences. But to Malagasies, the island has a history of upheaval characterised by coups, political instability and poverty. Foreign investors have been re-engaging with Madagascar since a 2013 vote stabilised democracy in the country, but this has been provisional.
In the run-up to the election, three wealthy candidates have toured the country, handing out sacks of rice and making electoral promises that most Malagasy do not see them keeping.
What is life like on the vanilla island?
About 80 percent of Madagascar’s population lives on less than $2 a day, making the country of 25 million people among Africa’s poorest. Unemployment is under two percent, official statistics show, but a 2015 government study found that "disguised unemployment" was at least 20 percent and underemployment was rampant.
This poverty has made its mark on the coming generation — one out of every two children is stunted by malnutrition, the World Food Programme says. It has the sixth highest rate of malnutrition in the world, with nearly half of all Malagasy children under the age of five suffering from chronic malnutrition, according to Unicef.
Around 1.2 million people need food aid in the southern part of the country, where the frequency of droughts has increased over the past decade, pushing farmers deeper into poverty. And only 13 percent of the island has access to electricity.
Then there is the pneumonic and bubonic plague outbreak that killed more than 200 people last year, before the “poor man’s disease” was brought under control in November 2017. Madagascar has been suffering from deaths brought on by the plague over the past few years, a disease that is compounded by the lack of adequate medical care for a significant amount of the population.
Who is vying for the presidency?
The island is a democratic republic which follows a semi-presidential system of government, meaning that executive power is shared between the president and the prime minister.
The presidential candidates are no strangers to Madagascar’s turbulent politics — the three are incumbent President Hery Rajaonarimampianina and his two main challengers, both former heads of state themselves: Marc Ravalomanana and Andry Rajoelina.
Madagascar's elected leader from 2002 until he was overthrown in 2009, Ravalomanana is known to voters as "the milkman" because he owns the country's leading dairy conglomerate.
Rajoelina, known for his rapid-fire rhetoric and charisma, became Africa's youngest president at the age of 34 in 2009, unseating Ravalomanana. But during his four years in power, poverty and corruption grew as investors and donors cut aid.
This time around, the former disk jockey is promising infrastructure development — everything from hospitals and schools to sports stadiums — and pledging to improve beaches to make them "like those of Miami and Cote d'Azur" to draw more tourists and promote job creation.
Rajaonarimampianina, 59, is an accountant by trade who had previously served as the finance minister — experience he is touting to win this year’s presidential race. He pledged to mend the economy and boasted of growth improvement on his watch. The IMF expects the economy to expand by five percent this year, the highest level since the coup.
But Rajaonarimampianina’s first tenure also has its political disputes. Lawmakers voted to impeach him in 2015, arguing that he violated the constitution by bringing religion into politics. But he retaliated by dismissing the accusation, which worked out in his favour as the constitutional court overturned the impeachment vote.
Critics also argue that he has made little progress in curbing rampant corruption.
Is the presidency an unstable seat of power?
Madagascar, a former French colony, gained independence in 1960 but has been mired in political instability for much of its statehood since.
Didier Ratsiraka, a former Marxist, ruled the country for two decades after gaining power in 1975, but a disputed 2001 election led to Ravalomanana, then the mayor of the capital Antananarivo, taking over.
However, in 2009, Ravalomanana was ousted from power by another Antananarivo mayor, Rajoelina, in an army-backed coup — a takeover that scared off foreign investors and led donors to freeze funds.
Rajoelina in turn was disqualified as a candidate in the 2013 elections for his links to the island’s troubled past, as were Ravalomanana's wife and Ratsiraka.
Rajaonarimampianina went on to win the presidency in the elections that year, leading to a somewhat tentative tranquility.
But proposed electoral changes touted in April 2018, that could bar certain candidates from running, threatened to stir up trouble when they triggered weeks of unrest. Facing calls for him to quit, President Rajaonarimampianina was forced to replace his government with a "consensus" administration in June 2018.