With Madagascar still in the throes of a political crisis, Zo Randriamaro discusses the broader background to the conflict outside of the media's focus on the contest for power between President Marc Ravalomanana and Mayor of Antananarivo Andry Rajoelina. With presidential power becoming progressively more dictatorial in recent years, Randriamaro points to the heightened discontent of both the weakened opposition party and the country's civil society groups in the face of neoliberal policies and growing social inequality. Underlining the key historic divide between urban and rural areas, Randriamaro argues that the current crisis represents a key opportunity to re-direct Madagascar onto a path towards democracy and improved human rights.
For the last few weeks, Madagascar has been in the grip of a political crisis whose genesis remains unclear. The media and diplomats have focused on the open conflict between the elected President Marc Ravalomanana and Andry Rajoelina, the beleaguered mayor of Antananarivo, who declared himself de facto leader of the country. This conflict has led to violence and the destruction of property belonging to the MAGRO corporation owned by Ravalomanana. The bloody suppression of a march on the presidential palace by supporters of Rajoelina on 7 February resulted in a number of deaths.
As national and international mediators - UN, AU, Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Coopération Française - try to resolve the crisis, a number of senior military officers have made it clear that if a solution is not found, 'we will take over, as the last bastion of the republic and national unity' (l'Express de Madagascar). Regardless of the army's motives, this ominous statement is a warning that we should go beyond mere conjecture and look at the structural and underlying causes of the current crisis.
A key factor in the crisis is the problem of inequality and social injustice. In spite of a 6 per cent growth rate in 2007, 70 per cent of the population still survives on less than $1 a day, and more than 59 per cent of the population are chronically malnourished (African Development Bank 2007). This points to a growing exclusion of the majority from the benefits of this growth. Previously, poverty was characteristic of rural areas, but urban poverty has grown from 43 per cent in 2001 to 52 per cent in 2005 (IMF 2007).
Moreover, the eagerness of Ravalomanana's government to pursue neoliberal policies has led to the privatisation of basic social services, thus putting these out of reach of those who need them most. Public discontent with the regime is largely due to this drop in living standards, exacerbated by a rise in the price of petrol and basic goods, and a decline in production in the export processing zones (EPZ) that were, prior to the end of the Multifibre Arrangement (MFA), a major source of employment.
Presidential power has becoming increasingly dictatorial, a fact that has heightened public anger and frustration and has been condemned by civil society and the country's intellectuals. In addition to this, the president has made a series of serious economic mistakes. The purchase of a presidential jet 'Force One' for US$60 million and the granting of a 99-year lease to Daewoo for the cultivation of more than half of the country's arable land are the most oft-cited examples of the mismanagement of the economy. In the meantime the World Bank and the IMF have frozen US$35 million in aid, pointing to an even greater problem. As the US ambassador to the country put it, 'the time is ripe to listen to what the people are saying. And the response should be better governance. The choice of shops destroyed is a clear message that private business and government business should not mix' (Radio France Internationale, 06/02/09).
Given the weakened state of the opposition and the erosion of institutional power structures, Andry Rajoelina did not find it difficult to channel public anger and position himself as the spokesperson for the regime's opponents. Commentators have drawn parallels between Ravalomanana's and Rajoelina's trajectories to power. Both were successful in business, both were mayors, and both came to power on the wings of popular movements. In Madagascar, the youth form the majority, However, social order continues to subordinate women and youth. Rajoelina represents a departure from this oppressive social order and the promise of success for the youth, just as the incumbent did when he came to power.
It would, however, be erroneous to assume that the population of Antananarivo is split between the supporters of both factions. Despite Rajoelina's calls for a general strike, factory workers in the export processing zones defended the factories and demanded to continue working. Most of those employed in the EPZ are unskilled labour - what the historian Jean Fremigacci calls ' the urban proletariat' - and yet they refused to strike because they could not afford to lose their salaries, however meagre, and not because they supported the elected president.
From a historical perspective, the current clash between these two men is but an episode in a decades-long crisis. Previous regimes, whether radical socialist or avowed neoliberal and have come and gone, neither able to understand nor resolve this crisis. This is the fourth time in the country's history that a popular uprising has gripped Antananarivo. The three previous ones took place in 1972, 1991 and 2002. Some scholars have identified a cyclical trend to these uprisings. They seem to occur every ten years or so, although public tolerance has dropped to seven years in the current instance. Each time, the incumbent government, claiming electoral legitimacy, has put down the uprising.
It is not by chance that the upheavals have taken place in Antananarivo, the country's political epicentre. Although the ripples are felt elsewhere in the country - and these have been restricted to isolated demonstrations and cases of looting - the intensity of events in the capital reveal a political chasm between centre and periphery. The only solution to this gap that has existed since the First Republic would be to jumpstart the process of decentralisation that was set in place by previous regimes.
This political divide has dominated political discourse and action, and continues to raise questions about the nature of counter forces in Madagascar. It would be instructive to analyse the role of churches and civil society in the present crisis, and their capacity to provide viable alternatives and inspire real democratic change.
The current crisis provides a unique opportunity to revisit the principles of democracy, citizenship and human rights in Madagascar. Women's organisations have realised this, and have demanded a general conference of Malagasy society and a constitutional referendum, as well as equal participation for women in all political processes. These are positive signs that indicate the willingness of women to actively work to resolve the crisis, rather than settled for negotiated democracy. And who knows? In post-genocide Rwanda the number of women in positions of power increased beyond all expectations.
* Zo Randriamaro is a human rights and gender activist from Madagascar with extensive experience on gender and economic issues.
* Translated from the French by Josh Ogada.
* Please send comments to email@example.com or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/.
 Declaration of 18th February 2009 by the College of Lecturers and Researchers at the Faculty of Law, Management and Sociology.
 See the Declarations by the Centre d'Observation et de Promotion du Genre, and the VMLF.