Washington, DC — The political standoff continues in Madagascar, following disputed elections in December 2001. Marc Ravalomanana, who claims to have won an outright majority, is still trying to consolidate his authority in the capital Antananarivo and various other parts of the island of about 16 million people. The incumbent President, Didier Ratsitaka, finally broke a long-held silence Friday, and rejected flatout an opposition demand that he step down. "I don't want my name to be soiled," he said in an interview with Radio France Internationale. "I don't want people to say that Ratsiraka is a deserter, that he is the one who allowed a horde of neo-fascists and nazis, as they are often called, to vassalise our children and children's children".
This is not the first time Ratsira ka has used such terms to describe his opponents but the fact they came after Tuesday's clashes in the central city of Fianarantsoa, in which several of Ravalomanana's supporters were killed by forces loyal to Ratsiraka, shows how volatile the situation has become. Ratsiraka, who described himself as a national saviour, spoke of the dangers of ethnic strife in Madagascar and accused Ravalomanana and his supporters of pushing the country into civil war. "I have saved the national unity six times in my life and I will try a seventh time," he said, "but this time I am not sure I can do it because there is such contempt for, and exacerbation of, ethnic conflict that I would find it difficult to save national unity, although I am committed to doing everything it takes to save it."
Concern about a possible civil war along ethnic lines was also expressed Thursday by Abdoulaye Bathily, a former Senegalese government minister and member of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Contact Group for Madagascar. In an interview with the Dakar daily, Sud Quotidien, Bathily warned that "the ethnic argument is beginning to be used increasingly, which is very grave because the hunt for different ethnic groups is beginning to be organised along regional lines". There are some eighteen major ethnic groups in Madagascar, including Malayo-Indonesian, African, Arab, French, Indian, Creole and Comoran. Bathily commended the army for having stayed "largely" neutral, but conceded the OAU's mediation had failed and blamed both Ratsrika and Ravalomanana for the current quandry.
As Ravalomanana is desperately seeking to extend his authority beyond his stronghold of Antanananarivo, where millions of demonstrators have supported his claim to office, his efforts are meeting increasing resistance elsewhere. Ratsiraka's supporters have erected roadblocks in various provinces, but especially around the capital, to starve it of fuel and other vital supplies. Ravalomanana's Prime Minister, Jacques Sylla, denounced those roadblocks, saying they are manned not by soldiers but by "mafiosi militias". He also threatened his governement would act to remove them. Ratsiraka has rejected that charge, saying the roadblocks "are a lesser evil designed to ward off an ethnic conflagration and a civil war because they separate the conflicting parties."
The current crisis in Madagascar erupted when Marc Ravalomanana disputed results of the December presidential ballot. The High Court decreed a second round of voting which Ravalomanana rejected before being proclaimed President by his supporters, following several weeks of strikes and mass demonstrations to force Ratsiraka to stand down. Although Ratsiraka concedes that Ravalomanana controls the capital, Antananarivo, and all government ministries, the incumbent President claims that other provinces still pledge support to his authority.