Vote counting begins in heavily boycotted Madagascar presidential election

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Polling stations closed and the counting of votes began Thursday in Madagascar in a presidential election that was boycotted by the majority of candidates following weeks of unrest and court battles.

A low voter turnout marked the election, as many people appeared to heed a call by a collective of 10 candidates to stay away from voting booths. Civil society groups had also called for a postponement of the election.

The country’s elections management body, Céni, is expected to announce late Thursday the first nationwide trend, based on the counting of 60% of the votes cast in major cities, before proclaiming the “provisional consolidated results” between Nov. 24 and Nov. 25.

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It will then be up to the country’s High Constitutional Court to proclaim the official results of the election at the beginning of December. A runoff has been scheduled for Dec. 20 if none of the candidates attain more than 50 percent from Thursday’s vote.

But the opposition has already said it doesn’t recognize this election.

“The majority of Malagasy people expressed themselves through the fact that they stayed at home,” said Hery Rajaonarimampianina, a former president speaking on behalf of the collective of 10 candidates that boycotted the election.

The situation was calm in the capital, Antananarivo, where authorities imposed a night-time curfew on the eve of the election after the torching of some polling stations late Tuesday.

But tension was palpable at some polling stations where some people refused to talk to journalists. At one polling station, people warned each other against making comments after being approached by an Associated Press journalist.

Voters’ choices were limited to three men after 10 candidates announced they were pulling out of the election this week, alleging that conditions for a legitimate and fair vote haven’t been met.

Andry Rajoelina is seeking reelection for a second term and is riding on a record of being the “Builder President” for infrastructure projects that some say have turned into white elephants.

Voter casts ballot in Antananarivo, Madagascar

A Malagasy voter casts his ballot in Antananarivo, Madagascar, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Alexander Joe)

A violent crackdown on protests by security forces ahead of the election has tainted his democratic credentials, while a struggling economy, lack of social services and widespread poverty weigh down his popularity.

“Madagascar needs democratic maturity. The only democratic way to get into power today, and I am fighting for it, is elections,” said Rajoelina after casting his ballot in Ambatobe, a rich district of the capital.

Rajoelina first took power in 2009 and served as president in a transitional government until 2014 after the previous leader, Marc Ravalomanana, was removed in a military-led coup. He made a return in 2018 when he beat Ravalomanana in a runoff.

Ravalomanana and Rajaonarimampianina, both former presidents, are among those boycotting the election.

The biggest challenge to Rajoelina, a 49-year-old former DJ, comes from a former ally-turned-foe, Siteny Randrianasoloniaiko, a wealthy 51-year-old businessman who is also the deputy for Tuléar city under Rajoelina’s IRD party in the island’s far south.

Randrianasoloniaiko distanced himself from Rajoelina ahead of the election, raising concerns about the fairness of the election after casting his vote.

“My observer delegates, those from my party, were not allowed to enter the polling stations, whether in Antananarivo, or on the coasts,” he said.

A third candidate is Sendrison Daniela Raderanirina, a relatively unknown 62-year-old who has lived mainly in France to pursue a career in information technology.

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Many in Madagascar hoped this election would break with a past of disputed votes, coups and political instability that have characterized the country since it gained independence from France in 1960.

But opposition figures, civil society and many ordinary people believe the election lacks credibility.

Opposition figures boycotting the election say Rajoelina should have been stripped of his Malagasy nationality and disqualified because he obtained French citizenship in 2014. Rajoelina said he took up dual citizenship to secure his children’s education in former colonizer France. The country’s highest court ruled in his favor.

They also allege that the national electoral commission and judiciary lack independence.

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Most of Madagascar’s 30 million people live in poverty in a country whose economy is anchored in agriculture and tourism but is largely dependent on foreign aid.

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