Madagascar to vote in run-off presidential polls

Supporters of Jean Louis Robinson, Presidential candidate of the AVANA Party, attend his last rally in Antananarivo on Dec 18, 2013. Madagascans return to polling stations on Friday to choose a new president in a run-off vote aimed at ending a politi
Supporters of Jean Louis Robinson, Presidential candidate of the AVANA Party, attend his last rally in Antananarivo on Dec 18, 2013. Madagascans return to polling stations on Friday to choose a new president in a run-off vote aimed at ending a political and economic crisis sparked by a coup four years ago.-- PHOTO: AFP

LIOU ANTANANARIVO (AFP) - Madagascans return to polling stations on Friday to choose a new president in a run-off vote aimed at ending a political and economic crisis sparked by a coup four years ago.

Proxy candidates for the ousted president and his usurper go head-to-head in the elections in a bid to restore democracy and foreign aid to the Indian Ocean island.

Medical doctor Robinson Jean Louis, who won most votes in the first round two months ago, is the protege of deposed and exiled leader Marc Ravalomanana.

His rival Hery Rajaonarimampianina was finance minister for most of strongman Andry Rajoelina's four years in power.

Electoral authorities barred the two main players from running in the vote, following pressure from the international community which feared a return to violence if the long-standing rivals participated.

Rajoelina ousted Ravalomanana in a military-backed coup in 2009, and has governed unelected ever since.

Friday's polls also include a parliamentary vote to elect 151 lawmakers for a five-year term.

"The campaign has globally been peaceful. There hasn't been violence, there haven't been confrontations," said political analyst Jean-Eric Rakotoarisoa.

There is no clear favourite.

"The outcome is uncertain as much for the presidential elections as the parliamentary ones," said Rakotoarisoa.

The different candidates from Rajoelina's camp together won over half the votes in the first round, but not all have endorsed Rajaonarimampianina.

"You sense a dynamic around Robinson Jean Louis's candidacy, but then it's not absolutely irresistible and enthusiastic," said a European diplomat.

Some have noted concerns about vote-rigging from Rajaonarimampianina's side, and the electoral court found a few violations by his supporters in the first round.

But it judged the transgressions unlikely to influence the outcome of a vote that observers deemed free.

Jean Louis, 61, a former health minister and World Health Organisation executive committee member, is banking on voters' nostalgia about the Ravalomanana era when the island enjoyed strong economic growth.

If elected, he has pledged to allow the ousted leader to return from exile in South Africa, where he has supported his candidate over the phone at campaign rallies.

It's that kind of support that won him 21.16 per cent in the first round, but his detractors accuse him of having a drinking problem.

His French-Malagasy nationality, membership of France's Socialist Party and activities as freemason have also drawn criticism.

Meanwhile, discreet businessman Rajaonarimampianina is credited with steering the economy as finance minister without much-needed foreign aid, which won him 15.85 per cent of ballots in October.

But critics say the 55-year-old has covered up the regime's illegal trafficking of precious stones and wood, a charge he has strongly denied.

Both men have promised a vast infrastructure construction programme to pull Madagascar from the doldrums. Nine out of ten people live on under two dollars a day, and poverty was already rife before the crisis.

The election commission should announce the vote results Jan 7 at the latest, to be confirmed by the election commission by Feb 18.