22 February 2002

Madagascar: Opposition Leader Declares Himself President

Johannesburg — Madagascar's main opposition leader, Marc Ravalomanana, defied warnings from the government, Friday, and proclaimed himself president of the Indian Ocean island, cheered on by tens of thousands of supporters at a ceremony in the main stadium in the capital, Antananarivo.

A judge solemnly told the vast crowd: "We officially proclaim Marc Ravalomanana president of the republic from today," saying that the 52 year old millionaire mayor of Antananarivo had won 52.15 percent of the vote in the election, against Ratsiraka’s 35.67 percent.

Speaking in the Malagasy language, Ravalomanana replied: "Before God and the people I accept the office of president of the republic and pledge to devote my energy and knowledge towards national unity and human rights."

There was no immediate reaction from the government of the incumbent president, Didier Ratsiraka, 67, who Ravalomanana has accused of cheating him of electoral victory in the contested December 16 presidential poll. Ravalomanana says he beat the president outright but the High Constitutional Court has ruled that he only won 46.2%, against President Ratsiraka's 40.8%, necessitating a second round run-off.

Ratsiraka, himself has remained silent beyond saying he was adhering to the constitution and would take part in a second round of voting against his political foe.

But in a statement on public radio and television, the leader of the Senate denounced Ravalomanana’s self-proclamation as "illegal". "You cannot seize power from the streets," said Honore Rakotomanana in his broadcast.

Ravalomanana told journalists he hoped the international community would recognise his declaration and "give its backing very soon".

The spokesman of the United Nations’ secretary-general earlier said Kofi Annan expressed "deep concern" at the reports that Ravalomanana was planning his self-styled inauguration and rejected "any attempts to take power outside of constitutional procedures."

Annan’s office said the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) should continue mediating in the political crisis. The OAU secretary-general, Amara Essy, had warned the Malagasy presidential contender not to go ahead with the 'swearing-in', saying that such action could make Ravalomanana an international pariah.

Despite these misgivings, and the threat of international condemnation, the dairy tycoon of Antananarivo went ahead with his decision, telling his enthusiastic followers: "I am very proud today to be the president of the republic." They sang the national anthem as Ravalomanana declared that Madagascar had "fallen into a completely intolerable situation, and that is why I decided to put myself forward for presidential elections."

Among those listening in the stadium were Malagasy judges and church leaders who heard Ravalomanana say he was afraid of nothing. "We have got to get the country back to work as soon as possible," he later told reporters, adding that he would begin work on forming a new government on Friday evening.

No diplomats attended the ceremony, which was held at the same Mahamasina stadium where Madagascar’s independence from Charles de Gaulle’s France was declared in 1960.

The current government warned Ravalomanana on Thursday that it would take unspecified action if he pressed ahead with his plans. The Senate leader said the people of Madagascar had been 'duped’ by Ravalomanana, adding "the people must have confidence that the government will apply the law and will organise the second round" of the presidential election.

The OAU-brokered mediation had appeared to end a political stalemate Tuesday, with an announcement that a run-off poll would be held on 24 March, delayed by one month. Ravalomanana initially agreed to that compromise.

But on Wednesday he announced to his followers that he was fed up, progress was too slow and that he was going his own way.

Since the December poll, there have been weeks of sustained and mainly peaceful opposition protests. For the past two weeks, Ravalomanana has called a general strike and succeeded in mobilising tens of thousands of his supporters who have brought the capital to a standstill.

Friday was declared a public holiday by Ravalomanana and there was minimal traffic on the streets of the city. Shops and banks were closed. There was no police or army presence around the stadium, but the military and paramilitary were guarding strategic administrative buildings in Antananarivo.

On Thursday, the defence minister announced that the army would remain neutral and was there to protect the citizens of Madagascar.

Ravalomanana derives most of his support from the capital. Ratsiraka is better known in the rural areas, where 80 percent of Malagasy live.

Pro-government supporters in the north of the island nation have staged blockades to cut off fuel supplies to Antananarivo, which some observers perceive as a subtle move by the current president to blunt the popularity of Ravalomanana, the city's mayor.

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