Coup attempt threatens Madagascar's uneasy path to democracy
Restoring democracy in Madagascar means parsing the motives of former presidents back from exile for upcoming elections – and learning how to build a stable government.
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Former presidents – toppled in coups or by contentious votes – are talking of returning from exile, opposition groups are becoming increasingly vocal, and a new and apparently independent election commission is printing ballots and readying polls for a four-stage series of elections, beginning with today's constitutional referendum. But is Madagascar ready for its return to democracy?
"We are ready for this election," says Yves Hery Rakotomanana, head of the National Independent Electoral Commission. Nothing should delay the votes, he adds, not even the logistical nightmare of holding elections during the country's six-month-long rainy season. "We don't have a choice. We have to have an election. For us, what we are looking for is a clean election. If the election is a mess, then Madagascar will go down."
The consequences of coups
The coup that toppled Madagascar's last elected government in March 2009 made little noise on the world scene. Power shifted from one elite to another; peace negotiations were held, then collapsed; and Madagascar's mining industry slowed to a crawl. Yet any coup in Africa is troubling, Western diplomats say, because it lowers the standard of behavior for neighboring regimes. And any election, even if flawed, offers a chance to end the political crisis that keeps the country poor.
"We have had a year-and-a-half of transition that was not dictatorial, but it was not stable either, so we in the international community say that we need to restore democracy," says a Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity in Antananarivo, the capital. "If Andry doesn't ruin this, then that may allow a new generation to come to power."
In Madagascar, those are hopeful words. Nearly 70 percent of the population, 14 million citizens, live below the poverty line. Some 1.3 million survive on daily international food assistance. Anything that creates instability, scares off investors or tourists, and slows the economy is unwelcome.
But in a country where power bounces among elite groups like a beach ball, true stability will come only through fundamental changes in how power is distributed, experts say.
"We're at a moment when the state itself is in danger; it is not able to provide the most basic services of health, education, sanitation, and security. Military discipline is completely breaking down," says Charlotte Larbuisson, regional analyst for the International Crisis Group.