Citizens of Madagascar streamed to polls today, as rumors of a military coup shook the capital city of Antananarivo. Gunfire was reported near the airport, and Reuters reported that top military officers have gathered to “crush” a coup attempt by junior officers.
Today’s vote is a referendum for citizens to either approve or reject a new constitution, a vital step toward national legislative and presidential elections next year, and toward normalization of diplomatic relations with its African neighbors and with its trading partners.
Madagascar has largely been cut off, diplomatically and economically, since a March 2009 coup toppled the elected government of President Marc Ravalomanana. That coup was led by a young popular disc jockey, Andry Rajoelina, who has governed the country as head of the High Authority of the Transition, backed by the Madagascar military.
Madagascar has been one of Africa’s most unstable nations, often racked by coups as members of its ruling elite battle for power and control of the country’s mineral resources.
Rebel Col. Charles Andrianasoavina, who is leading this latest attempt, told Reuters that a "military council for the welfare of the people" has taken over the island. Just 18 months before, Colonel Andrianasoavina was one of the army officers who had supported the coup that installed President Rajoelina, whom he now seems determined to overthrow.
But by mid-afternoon, the coup seemed to be fizzling. Sources reached in Antananarivo told the Monitor that most of the nation’s army seem to be staying in their barracks and not joining the coup, perhaps a sign that the rebel faction has failed to gain wide support.
In a televised press conference, Prime Minister Vital Albert Camille told Madagascar citizens the rebel action was an attempt to "discredit" the constitutional referendum, and he called for the population to remain calm.
For most of the day, voting proceeded quietly in a referendum to lower the qualifying age for president to 35. If approved, the law would allow 36-year-old coup leader Andry Rajoelina to remain president and contest elections in May 2011. Three of the country’s main opposition parties are boycotting the referendum, saying that there had not been sufficient time for voters to study the new constitution and to know what they were voting for.
“In my point of view, this is a unilateral move by Rajoelina,” says Pierrot Rajaonarivelo, a senior member of the opposition MDM party, who recently returned to Madagascar to negotiate with the Rajoelina government. “We are not against the idea of a referendum, because we are the ones who proposed an election. What bothers us is the timing. No one has a copy of the constitution. You can’t force the people to say yes or no, without knowing what is in the constitution.”
A newly formed electoral commission promised to conduct free, fair, and transparent elections. “We are ready, from a logistics point of view,” says Batonnier Hery Rakotoranana, head of the electoral commission. “It’s not for the opposition to say, let’s stop the elections. That’s for the people to decide. Let’s give the people a choice.”
No matter which way the vote goes on this constitution, it is almost certain that the next government of Madagascar will be made up of the elite who live in the central highlands around Madagascar’s capital of Antananarivo, most of them descended from some of the oldest families to cross the Indian Ocean more than 1,000 years ago from what is now called Indonesia.
“Politics in Madagascar are deceptive,” says a senior government official, speaking privately to the Monitor. “On the outside, people are fighting. But then you see them at parties, and they are friendly with each other. In the end, it is the population, the common man, who loses.”