afrol News / IRIN, 9 June - Tension is rising in Madagascar ahead of elections scheduled for December, after talks between the government and opposition fizzled out. In a bid to ease the political situation, President Marc Ravalomanana held talks with various parties last month, but the overture was boycotted by the main opposition coalition, 3FN, which includes former President Didiér Ratsiraka's AREMA party.
Stephen Ellis, a researcher at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, in the Netherlands, and former director of the Africa programme at the International Crisis Group, told the UN media 'IRIN': "You can expect argument to sharpen in the run-up to the election," particularly because "the last election in 2001 was extremely controversial".
Both current President Ravalomanana and thus-incumbent President Didiér Ratsiraka claimed victory in 2001, and Mr Ratsiraka's supporters tried to blockade the capital, Antananarivo, which was pro-Ravalomanana. After a recount in April 2002, the High Constitutional Court pronounced Mr Ravalomanana president but it was not until July that Mr Ratsiraka - who was accused of poll rigging - fled, and Mr Ravalomanana gained control of the country.
"It [the contested 2001 election] actually led to a low-intensity civil war," Mr Ellis said. Although few believe a repeat of 2002 is likely, there have been protests over worsening standards of living, despite a government drive to erase poverty.
"Ravalomanana does face a threat arising from his own policies. These are seen to have increased the cost of rice as well as petroleum (and the resultant electricity cuts), which have brought significant resentment, even in Ravalomanana's Antananarivo base," said the last risk assessment conducted by FAST, an early warning programme funded by an international consortium of development agencies.
Richard Marcus, Assistant Professor of Political Science at The University of Alabama who is finalising an update of the FAST risk assessment, said low salaries in the civil service were also causing dissatisfaction. Malagasy civil servants were given a 12 percent rise but that barely keeps up with rising prices.
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) inflation in Madagascar reached 30 percent in 2005. "Ravalomanana has become more tarnished over recent years - he is facing more problems, mainly of his own making." The military was also disgruntled, Mr Marcus said, although there was no real threat of a coup. "Pay has been low and irregular, and the military believes they deserve more after supporting him [Ravalomanana] in 2002."
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urged the Malagasy government and opposition to enter into dialogue ahead of the elections during his visit to Madagascar last month.
President Ravalomanana's "absolutely non-negotiable" attitude towards the issues considered important by the opposition would make it difficult for the parties to come together, said Mr Marcus. "His unwillingness to do that makes it impossible to build relationships." Opposition demands range from amnesty for crimes committed in 2002 to the drafting of a new constitution.
Since President Ravalomanana secured office in 2002, "by common consent the economy has revived and he has gained considerable international support," Mr Ellis noted. And with that support came significant economic pledges. According to the FAST risk assessment, Madagascar has seen massive aid inflows and substantial debt relief since 2002.
As a result of President Ravalomanana's economic reforms, "more money is coming into the country but distribution is still a problem - those in elite positions benefit the most", Mr Marcus commented. "It will take time to trickle down" to the poor. "Ravalomanana has become a favourite of the Americans - he is a born-again Christian, encourages economic liberalisation and is a businessman," Mr Ellis commented.
But his private business interests have also become cause for concern. In a 'rags to riches' climb, President Ravalomanana started out by selling homemade yoghurt from the back of his bicycle on the streets of the capital and now owns the largest domestically owned company on the island.
Opponents argue that there is a clear conflict of interest between his personal corporate activities and his role as President. "He comes from humble origins and one of the problems now is that he is starting to own just about everything - he personally dominates the economy," Mr Ellis said.
Mr Marcus pointed out that "there is a perception that [Mr Ravalomanana's businesses] are benefiting from his presidency", winning lucrative government contracts ahead of competitors, and people were starting to say, "if he is getting richer why aren't we? What about us?"
"The close relationship between Ravalomanana's public and private responsibilities, as evidenced in ... [the] preferential treatment of his own Tiko and Magro company, has long drawn the ire of his detractors," the FAST risk assessment noted. Malagasy Broadcasting Systems, a Tiko subsidiary directed by the President's daughter, has been accused of "acting with a heavy hand to quell opposition press".
Mr Marcus warned that "opposition leaders will try to call people to the streets during the elections, but this won't really happen if elections run smoothly and transparently".
As Vice-President of the Protestant Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar, a powerful actor in Madagascar's civil society, President Ravalomanana has secured further vital support. "He has managed to command economic, political, media and civil society - it will be hard for the opposition to unseat a president like that," Mr Marcus commented.
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