What Madagascar's failed coup attempt could mean for the fragile country

A coup attempt by rebel officers against a government that itself came to power by military force, leaves Malagasy citizens calling it an example of political theater and all eyes on a constitutional vote.

By , Correspondent

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    A street hawker blows bubbles to attract customers in Antananarivo, Madagascar, on Nov. 22. Since Madagascar gained independence from France in 1960, soldiers have repeatedly meddled in politics. Most Malagasy, as the nation's people are known, live in poverty, which ecotourism, vanilla production and the recent discovery of oil have done little to alleviate.
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Until some days ago, when a few dozen military officers announced they were dissolving the government and forming a committee to create another one, Madagascar was just another African country well outside of the media’s glare.

Now that the coup attempt has been halted and the coup leaders have been arrested without casualties, observers are asking whether any of this belated attention will help lift the country out from almost two years of political and economic crisis.

The attempted coup was launched on the day a referendum was held in Madagascar to approve or reject a newly written constitution, proposed by the country’s self-declared President Andry Rajoelina – who took power himself through a coup d’etat just 18 months ago. Lawyers and opposition party activists worry that Mr. Rajoelina, who initially promised not to run again for president, would use a positive result on the constitutional referendum to legitimize his interim administration and finally garner the international recognition he needs to unfreeze trade and aid benefits on which the country is reliant.

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Now regardless of the expected 70 percent win at home, Rajoelina may have lost abroad.

Mediation to Madagascar

Tomaz Salomao, executive secretary of the Southern African Development Community that mediated talks between Rajoelina and the three main
opposition parties in Addis Ababa and Maputo in 2009, said that a delegation would arrive in Madagascar Tuesday.

"The mediator will be there tomorrow to consult with the parties and decide what to do next," Mr. Salomao says. He could not say whether the referendum results pointing in the government's favor would be accepted by the international community, but said the goal of new talks was for Madagsacar "to go back to constitutional order."

Earlier this month senior US diplomat Karl Wycoff announced after meeting Rajoelina and main political groups that there were "a number of significant problems with the current political process" and that SADC talks should be restored. He voiced concerns over the government's steps toward restoring constitutional order, citing "the creation and operation of a variety of transitional bodies, the constitutional referendum now scheduled for Nov. 17, and the proposed electoral calendar."

The referendum

The government urged people to ignore the country's main opposition parties – three parties formed by the country's three previous presidents – to boycott the referendum. Rajoelina urged voters to vote "yes" on the new constitution as the only way out of the crisis, with countryside rallies packed with pop stars, and presidential promises of subsidized housing, food, jobs, public works, and other populist measures.

Even "no" parties expect the government to win the referendum, albeit with accusations of manipulation and an "undemocratic" awareness campaign about just what is written in the new constitution. With no deadline for the interim administration, no mention of scheduled presidential and legislative election dates next year, and a recent court decision to lower the age of eligibility for presidential candidates from 40 to 35, results from a calm morning of voting on Wednesday indicated that Rajoelina could keep his options open.

From the outset, the coup attempt of Nov. 17 seemed to have more of a political than a military objective. Twenty rebels, led by a colonel and a general, made a declaration of their coup on election day to a limited number of journalists at their residential base near the airport at Antananarivo. They they took no further action, saying that they could take the country's main airport at any time. For the next three days, they effectively stayed home, receiving military colleagues doubling as unofficial negotiators with the government and TV cameras.

Outside the gates of the surrounded military base, very few crowds gathered. A meeting of disaffected mayors was broken up on Saturday, with the head of the mayors arrested. Even the brief citizen protest in favor of rebels, throwing stones into the road outside the base, and the subsequent firing of tear gas by military police seemed to be largely pro-forma. The entire coup claimed no casualties.

Latest coup 'cinema'

Apart from a few scuffles in the capital, most Malagasies viewed this coup as the latest bit of "cinema" directed by the squabbling elites.

Engineer Harisoa Razakananana would not reveal how she voted. She said, "Our problem is international recognition, but we Malagasies need to take the matter into our own hands and not allow the powers to manipulate us." She said the country had had enough of political infighting and said "not many people will go and vote. They have had enough."

Air Madagascar employee Solofo Ralaboarisoa, speaking to Bloomberg News Agency, said he is abstaining from the vote but had accompanied a friend to polling stations.

He is abstaining "to not recognize the power in place, because it is a de facto power that is organizing these elections. I want to demonstrate my dislike because they will try and use this vote to manipulate the international community and public opinion. Yesterday the government said vote yes to get out of the crisis. It's a way of poisoning the people."

Disenfranchised by the political system, most people in the capital rate presidents by how much better or worse life has got for them, and when asked who they would like to lead the country, citizens seem to deem them all as corrupt as each other. The only consensus seems to be that this is the worst crisis the country has seen, and opinions at polling stations seemed divided and confused about whether or how their vote or abstention would improve things.

International community role

As the government banned broadcasts of the rebel's declaration on state radio and television, it is likely that most of the 20 million inhabitants of the world's fourth largest island were unaware that a coup attempt had taken place.

The same cannot be said for the international community. A long trail of similar coups over the past 40 years still makes foreign donor nations and neighbors jump.

France's foreign Minister Christine Lagarde was quick to condemn the rebels, but an EU statement from High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton pointed the finger at the lack of transparency and inclusivity in the government's decisions, especially the electoral calendar. Along with the US, France has urged parties to return to internationally mediated talks with the African Union and SADC.

Given current volatility, there is little doubt that this could have turned into a real coup, and the propensity for change by force is still strong as social, economic, and political tensions are reaching the breaking point. The Nov. 17 referendum, by chance, marked the end of 20 months of crisis for Madagascar.

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