Madagascar: Understanding Madagascar's Latest Political Crisis

A street in Antananarivo (file photo).

In the last month, impeachment proceedings have begun, an unholy alliance has emerged, and the president's accused opponents of launching a coup.

When Madagascar's opposition organised a rally on 21 April, its objective was simply to denounce some proposed new electoral laws. But when police opened fired in the capital Antananarivo, killing two and injuring several, the situation quickly escalated.

President Hery Rajaonarimampianina claimed the demonstrations were a coup attempt. Meanwhile, the opposition ramped up its demands, calling for the president to resign and for elections to be held early.

In a matter of days, a dispute over electoral minutiae had spiralled into a full-blown political crisis. A month on, the situation seems intractable.

Who can run?

The original rally centred on some controversial laws that would have made certain opposition candidates ineligible for elections scheduled for November. Most notably, the changes would have barred both Marc Ravalomanana, president from 2002 until he was removed in a coup in 2009, and Andry Rajoelina, the coup leader who took over as president until 2013, from running.

With the opposition boycotting the final vote, parliament approved these new laws on 3 April. A cross-party group of 73 lawmakers calling themselves MPs for Change claimed the government had used bribes and other inducements to win and alleged other irregularities.

A rally was organised in protest at the new laws later that month. But it quickly took on a life of its own, fuelled by popular frustration with rampant corruption, pervasive poverty, and the glacial pace of change since President Rajaonarimampianina came to office.

The African Union (AU), UN, European Union, and Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) have all since dispatched mediators, but to no avail. In a statement issued last week, the AU bemoaned the intransigence of rival parties, accusing them of "putting their interests before those of the country, at the risk of worsening the crisis and jeopardising the organisation of the polls".

It is not surprising that international interventions have not achieved much. The last externally-mediated deal, brokered by SADC's Joaquim Chissano in 2013, was deeply unpopular. The agreement was meant to put an end to five years of political stalemate between Ravalomanana and Rajoelina. At the time SADC intervened, then president Rajoelina had been promising to hold elections, but refused to let the man he overthrew back into the country and kept stalling the process.

The Chissano deal, dubbed "ni ni" (neither nor), was a compromise in that it prevented both rivals from running. But it was deeply resented by much of the population who felt robbed of the chance to settle political disputes at the polls.

"[Chissano] is quite a toxic figure," says a senior Western diplomat. "Where [the regime and the opposition] are all in agreement is that he is not welcome."

Hanitra Razafimanantsoa, spokesperson for MPs for Change, says that Malagasies want to solve their problems themselves. "We no longer want solutions imposed by the international community," she says.

Changing the laws

In fact, Madagascar's own institutions did intervene. On 3 May, the High Constitutional Court (HCC) rejected a number of clauses in the new laws as unconstitutional. This included those provisions that would have prevented Ravalomanana and Rajoelina from running.

According to Malagasy law, the next step should have been for the executive to send the legislation back to parliament for review. But instead, the president unilaterally amended the laws and published them on 11 May.

That new text should, in theory, allow Ravalomanana and Rajoelina to run. But it still contains many other provisions - regarding issues such as campaign funding, the organisation of the polls, and media coverage - that worry the opposition and civil society who remain dismayed.

"These electoral laws are unconstitutional and exclusive," says Razafimanantsoa. "They won't allow us to go towards credible, fair and inclusive elections."

In a communiqué, civil society organisation Sefafi said: "Without parliamentary scrutiny, it is the HCC who will have legislated, with the complicity of the executive, in violation of all democratic and constitutional principles."

Elections on the horizon

As Madagascar's political crisis ramped up late last month, the opposition also submitted an impeachment request with the HCC. Its petition is based on the fact that the president failed to appoint the High Court of Justice within 12 months of his election. President Rajaonarimampianina submitted his defence plea on 18 May.

It is unlikely the Court will uphold the request; it struck down a similar one filed in 2015. When that happens, the opposition will be left with the options of negotiating with the government or resorting to more forceful measures. At this point, the strange and unholy alliance between the old rivals Ravalomanana and Rajoelina could split apart.

"The opposition isn't homogenous," says the Western diplomat. "I think TIM [Ravolamana's party] is open to some sort of deal so long as Ravalomanana is allowed to run. If TIM starts pulling away, then MAPAR [Rajoelina's party] looks weak."

Razafimanantsoa rejects this prospect and stands by her group's demands. "It is the whole regime we object to: the president, the senate, the prime minister. It was them who brought these laws," she says. "The laws were the straw that broke the camel's back. [We need] a whole systemic change."

Annie Rakotoniaina, Sefafi's spokesperson, says that the only way out of the current impasse is to find a consensus to re-examine the electoral laws, although time is of the essence given the electoral calendar. "No one wants to see elections postponed," she says.

In theory, the first round of the presidential elections should take place on 28 November, but the electoral commission CENI says elections could be organised for as early as 29 August. On the other hand, if planning is stalled and gets nowhere before the start of the rainy season in December, the polls could legally be delayed until May 2019.

Finding a mediator to foster dialogue in Madagascar's stalemate will be tough. The international community has failed and the church is biased. The Council for National Reconciliation (CFM) could play a role, but it has only just been set up and lacks teeth.

Yet without some kind of resolution, it will be impossible to hold "serene polls", as Rakotoniaina puts it. Rather than consolidating Madagascar's electoral democracy, the elections would likely open the door to more contestations - and more political crises.

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