Hungry for prosperity, Madagascar pins hopes on presidential vote

The African island nation has languished under foreign sanctions since a coup in 2009. Many hope Friday's vote will get the country back on track.

By , Contributor

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    A general view shows the cityscape and the Queen Palace, also called Manjakamiadana, in Madagascar's capital Antananarivo, October 24, 2013.
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Every night at dusk in Antetezanafovoany, a maze-like slum of ramshackle huts, open sewers, and perilous gangways in Madagascar's capital of Antananarivo, dozens of makeshift soup stalls appear along the main road. For $0.17, vendors serve bowls of hot broth with meat and vegetables. The stalls are lit by small petrol lamps and customers eat standing, hurriedly and in silence, before resuming their errands.

“With the price of rice and charcoal, it is cheaper than eating at home,” says Hery, a local stall owner who didn't want to give his surname for fear of drawing unwanted attention.

The soup stalls, which didn’t exist two years ago, are emblematic of what’s happened since February 2009 when Marc Ravalomanana, the democratically elected president of the Indian Ocean island off East Africa, was overthrown. The international community condemned the coup and the man who replaced Mr. Ravalomanana, Andry Rajoelina, and the effects were immediate: foreign aid was put on hold and foreign investors held back.

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Now, with the country’s economy essentially stuck in neutral, many are hoping Friday’s presidential elections will get things started again, generating exports, investment, as well as renewed interest from foreign tourists whose dollars and euros dried up after sanctions were imposed.

With jobs increasingly hard to come by, people have turned to the informal sector: It now makes up 40 percent of Madagascar's Gross Domestic Product and two-thirds of the population is either unemployed or underemployed according to the World Bank.

Across Antananarivo, a city of more than 1.2 million people, street hawkers crowd the pavement and spill onto the roads by the thousands, all hoping to eke out a living. Nothing is too small to sell: single envelopes, reclaimed plastic bottles, second-hand clothes, salvaged electrical cords. According to the World Bank, 92 percent of the country’s population now lives on less than $2 a day, up from 69 percent in 2008.

Infrastructure projects used to be financed in large part by international aid, so when sanctions hit after the coup, the bottom fell out of the construction industry.  But in Antetezanafovoany, which is one of Antananarivo’s most impoverished districts, people are in no doubt about the origin of the crisis.

“We’ve been in transition for more than four years,” says Hajo, a young laborer who also declined to give his surname. “And without a president, things always get worse.”

Like many, Hajo is pinning his hopes on the elections. The first since the coup, the vote is the culmination of two years of protracted negotiations between the Ravalomanana and Rajoelina camps, and pressure from the international community. After much wrangling, both were barred from running, but they remain influential, behind-the-scenes players leaving the specter of more trouble ahead.

A mayor of Antananarivo, Mr. Rajoelina rallied support from military officers to seize power from the increasingly unpopular Ravalomanana. Rajoelina had promised to hold elections shortly after the coup but his feud with Ravalomanana, who was exiled to South Africa, has undermined the process. Elections have already been postponed twice this year.

According to an Afrobarometer survey published in July, 80 percent of Malagasy people think elections are a necessary step to end the crisis. Many, however, are skeptical that any of the 33 candidates running for office will do better than their predecessors. In the same survey, 83 percent of respondents blamed political leaders for poor development performance here.

“All the candidates are the same,” Christian, another Antetezanafovoany resident who makes a living selling milk and dairy products from his cow, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “None of them deserves to be president.”

One of the worst consequences of the crisis has been rampant corruption. For entrepreneurs, like Christian, dairy is a clever niche: Mr. Ravalomanana used to run the dairy empire Tiko, but his business collapsed when he was overthrown and dairy products have since become scarcer and dearer. But to bring his cow from Antsirabe, 110 miles south of Antananarivo, Christian has to pay the equivalent of $44 to police, or about 5 percent of the value of the animal. Madagascar’s largest business lobby, GEM, says that many of its members were subject to extortion by government officials.  

According to the most recent survey by the Germany-based NGO Transparency International, more than half of the Malagasy population thinks corruption has increased over the past two years.

Changing entrenched practices won’t be solved overnight by elections, and neither will five years of political and economic neglect, according to observers. Elections will merely bring an end to the transition, not the crisis, predicts Sylvain Urfer, one of the founding members of the Madagascar-based political think-tank SeFaFi.

“But they will put a number of things back on track and they will legitimize the government,” Mr. Urfer says.

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