Madagascar coup attempt: rebel leaders appear to lose momentum

Madagascar mutineers announced a coup attempt Wednesday, the same day the unstable country held a constitutional referendum. But there has been no movement from the coup leaders.

Soldiers patrol a street in Madagascar's capital Antananarivo on Nov. 18, a day after an attempted coup. The capital was calm Thursday, with no sign forces loyal to Andry Rajoelina would try to oust the mutinous officers from the base where they had gathered near the capital's airport.

Rebel leaders who announced a coup in Madagascar yesterday are holding talks at their base with the Armed Forces, whom they are asking to help them take over the government.

Coup leaders Gen. Noël Rakotonandrasana and Col. Charles Andrianasoavina, both instrumental in helping Andry Rajoelina seize the presidency in a March 2009 coup, said today that "we need to get rid of him. The country doesn't work anymore."

Some 20 mutineers made a declaration yesterday that a military committee had dissolved the government and seized power, and later called for the military to come to their base to show support.

There has been no movement from the barracks and little dialogue or definitive statements from them since, with Andrianasoavina saying they "won't take power suddenly, but step by step."

Following demonstrations near barracks last night and minor incidents in the center of the capital Antananarivo, it is business as usual on the streets. The prime minister has made several media appearances calling for calm and stating that the government is in charge.

Whether the coup attempt succeeds or not, the announcement put President Rajoelina's interim administration under even more scrutiny yesterday as it faced the polls for the first time in a constitutional referendum.

At a press conference outside his local polling station last night, Rajoelina said that "despite death threats and calls for me to stand down, I will not stand down." He said that the small group of rebels wanted to destabilize elections and a return to constitutional order.

Andrianasoavina said they announced the coup yesterday "not just to upset the elections, but to take power" after Rajoelina failed to fulfill promises of change. He said that now, coup leaders were negotiating only with the military.

Alain Ramarason, who is the head of the Defense Commission, said that the government was negotiating with the group today via emissaries, including Gen. André Andriarijaona, head of Madagascar's Army. He said that the government would have to makes some decisions soon to prevent panic, but warned that "we will use force as a last resort."

Rakotonandrasana, who announced the coup yesterday at military barracks outside Antananarivo, appeared confident today when asked whether the silence and lack of action so far meant coup leaders were backing down.

"We don't need to surrender; we're in the process of building ourselves up," he said, explaining that their strategy did not involve immediate measures. Last night, reports emerged that coup leaders would take nearby Ivato airport and the presidential palace.

He would not say how many people were behind them, apart from two generals and "not a bad number" of other military personnel, or whether their coup announcement followed had political rather than military backing.

He said they were military politicians who aimed to put in a new, inclusive, government to help restore peace and prosperity to the ailing island after 20 months of economic and diplomatic isolation.

President's hope in elections

Rajoelina expected the elections to be the first step toward restoring order and confidence in Madagascar after the international community refused to recognize his presidency. Yesterday's actions were not the vote of confidence he expected, and many think that he will be forced back to the negotiating table at home and abroad.

The referendum was boycotted by the Indian Ocean island's main opposition parties, as they did not participate in government-led talks with around 100 smaller parties that created the constitution and electoral calendar.

This week's vote precedes long-awaited legislative and presidential elections next year, but critics say that the new constitution is a tool to legitimize his power, as it does not set a deadline for the transition.

Candidates must also be resident in the country six months prior to standing, which some view as a block to rival the former president, Marc Ravalomanana, who has lived in South African exile since forced out by Rajoelina's coup. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor in August.

The opposition's refusal to participate has so far not yielded the desired result, according to the most recent results from the National Independent Electoral Commission today, which claimed a higher than average 46 percent participation, with 68 percent voting for and 31 percent against.

There was no national, credible "no" party until last week, when Pierrot Rajaonarivelo, head of the opposition Madagascar Democracy Movement, joined fellow lawyers in opposing the new constitution on the grounds that the government awareness campaign was insufficient and people did not know what they were voting for.

Harotsilavo Rakotoson, a lawyer and "no" campaigner, said that "one of the government's concerns is the lack of popular legitimacy. They will use a positive result to pretend they have been elected by Madagascar's people.''

He predicts the no party will take Antananarivo, but the yes will claim the rest of the country.

Fellow Harvard Law School graduate Sahondra Rabenarivo agrees that this document will be used to legitimize the government, but that yesterday's actions have taken the spotlight off the referendum and returned it to Madagascar's fractious military and political instability.

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