Madagascar's presidential election on 25 October is the country's first such election since the military-backed coup of 2009, which led to a devastating economic crisis due to subsequent sanctions and withdrawal of budget aid. The elections, rescheduled for a third time this year, could herald a fresh start for Madagascar.
The country has been hindered by the intense rivalry between the country's two leading political protagonists: Andry Rajoelina, president of the incumbent transitional regime, and Marc Ravalomanana, the ousted head of state. Both men finally succumbed to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and wider international pressure and are not running for office. Marc Ravalomanana has called for an election boycott, but it is uncertain how many people will heed his call. Prior to Mr Ravalomanana's call for a boycott the African Union (AU) lifted it sanctions against Mr Rajoelina and 108 others.
There are thirty-three candidates competing and both Mr Rajoelina and Mr Ravalomanana are supporting proxy candidates. The front runners are Hery Martial Rakotoarimanana Rajaonarimampiania (believed to be Mr Rajoelina's preferred candidate) and Richard Jean-Louis Robinson (backed by Mr Ravalomanana). In August, the country's Special Electoral Court excluded Mr Ravalomana's wife, Lalao, incumbent president, Andrey Rajoelina and exiled former president Didier Ratsiraka from the presidential polls. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the votes cast on Friday, a second round will be held on 20 December along with parliamentary elections. There are over 7 million voters and 20,115 polling stations.
The credibility of the elections is important if Madagascar is to close its current chapter of political instability. Regional and international partners have been better at coordinating their management of the crisis recently. And if the elections are credible, then, with renewed donor support, the country can hope to revive exports, investment and a sustained drive for poverty reduction.
Madagascar may not show levels of violence and traumatic disruption compared to 'hot' crises elsewhere, but it is a slow-burning social and economic disaster. The overthrow of constitutional rule in 2009 provoked cuts to external aid and the exclusion of Malagasy exports from vital access privileges to the important US market. According to the World Bank, more than 92% of Madagascar's population of 21 million live on less than $2 a day.
Despite donor efforts to maintain a drip feed of support for critical services, the UN reports that deprivation has deepened since 2009, particularly among children, in a country where incomes were already among Africa's lowest. The crisis has also hurt a once vigorous manufacturing sector and threatens lasting damage to a natural environment of global importance.
Madagascar's economic development depends on full access to international aid, investment and confidence. If political manoeuvres or administrative failings undermine the democratic credibility of the elections, then the international community, SADC, and the AU will need to refresh their strategy. They will need to reconcile the credible defence of democratic principles with reviving the development and growth that has been denied to Madagascar's people over the past four years of political deadlock.
Elections that are fully rejected by the opposition or donors will deny the fresh start that Madagascar needs, the result being deepening poverty levels and increased crime and civil unrest. The stakes are high, underscored by a bomb blast in the capital Antananarivo on 5 September. Although it is an island state bigger than the United Kingdom, and whose political instability has few immediate regional implications, the country is globally strategic for its bio-diversity and increasingly for its mineral and gem wealth. How the elections are conducted will have international implications.
Alex Vines is Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; and Head, Africa Programme at Chatham House and Simon Massey is Director, African Studies Centre, Coventry University.