Madagascar goes to presidential elections in November with its slim prospects of change resting on a judoka.
Can a judoka throw Malagasy President Andry Rajoelina off his podium as head of state? Siteny Randrianasoloniaiko, a former judo champion and head of the African Judo Union, and believed to be Russia's candidate, is the top contender for Rajoelina's throne in the November presidential elections.
Siteny, if we may call him that, is a charismatic legislator whose candidature is causing alarm in State House, say analysts. He has created a political movement called MIHAVA TOUR ('listening to the population'), which aims to give the floor to the people directly.
In the 2018 polls, mysterious Russians posing as tourists reportedly arrived in Antananarivo and offered various presidential candidates financial and other support in exchange for benefits such as mining concessions, if they won. After initially backing then president Hery Rajaonarimampianina, they switched to Rajoelina. Now, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime reports, these agents - representing Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin - are back, 'searching for new candidates to support in the 2023 election, to repeat the strategies seen in 2018.'
According to Global Initiative, Wagner wants a new champion 'who can offer more financial benefits or more fulsome support for Russia on the international stage. Three separate sources reported that one candidate, Siteny Randrianasoloniaiko, held a meeting with a Russian "recruiter" suspected of being linked to Wagner. Randrianasoloniaiko ... is widely perceived as being politically aligned with Russia.'
It will be a marathon task for Siteny Randrianasoloniaiko to dislodge Rajoelina from office
Madagascar-based journalist Emre Sari told ISS Today that Siteny is the biggest challenge Rajoelina will likely face. (It's unclear whether his predecessor Rajaonarimampianina and arch-rival Marc Ravalomanana, whom he toppled in a 2009 coup, intend to run against him.)
Sari believes Siteny's campaign will be based on pointing out the Rajoelina administration's failure to address the fundamental problems of a country with 81.7% of its population living below the US$1.90/day poverty index. But he acknowledges it will be a marathon task for the judoka to dislodge Rajoelina from office.
Rajoelina will be seeking a second and last term under the new constitution. But it would in practice be his third term - he held the office from 2009 to 2013 after seizing power from Ravalomanana in a coup. Both rivals were persuaded by the Southern African Development Community to stand down in 2013 when Rajaonarimampianina won.
Over the past five years, Rajoelina has shored up power with such arbitrary measures as reducing the Senate from 63 to 18 members and empowering himself to appoint six of those Senators. After subsequent victories of his ruling TGV/MAPAR/IRD coalition in the 2019 national legislative and local elections, and 2020 indirect Senate elections, Rajoelina essentially controls all the levers of power.
Germany's Bertelsmann Foundation recently reported that Rajoelina also faces little opposition from outside politics. 'The separation of powers established by the constitution is weak in practice. The executive is the main power, dominating the other branches ... the president holds vast powers.'
Rajoelina has used his five years in office to seize virtually all the levers of power
Parliament has essentially become a rubber stamp for the executive. Likewise, it seems, the public media are 'widely seen as a tool of the ruling party.' Other institutions are also regarded by the public as 'headed by political appointees who owe their allegiance to the government of the day.'
People have lost faith in judicial independence. The president also presides over the Superior Council of the Magistrature, and appoints three members of the High Constitutional Court. 'The personalisation of power by successive presidents has affected the functioning, transparency and independence of other institutions, especially the judiciary,' the Bertelsmann Foundation reports. 'As a consequence, the Malagasy have lost faith in the court system.'
The intense centralisation of power, consequent hollowing out of institutions, and weakening of governance have impacted the economy. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) says COVID-19 had a massive impact on the economy, which shrank 7.1% in 2020, almost twice the sub-Saharan African average.
The discreet IMF doesn't add that Madagascar's ability to cope with the pandemic wasn't helped by denialism at the top. Instead of implementing vaccinations, Rajoelina promoted a home-brewed reputed herbal cure. The IMF says even today, the vaccination rate is just 6.9%, which still hurts the economy, mainly by discouraging tourism.
It does note that the economy bounced back to 5.7% growth in 2021, supported mainly by mining and construction. However, the growth momentum was disrupted in the first half of 2022 by the impact of five cyclones and slower growth prospects in the United States and Europe.
81.7% live below the international poverty line and over 1 million rely on World Food Programme handouts
The IMF calculates 4.2% growth in 2022, unchanged in 2023, but with inflation accelerating to 9.5%. It agreed to disburse US$32.6 million for budget support, bringing its total disbursement to Madagascar under the current Extended Credit Facility to about US$195.5 million.
Nonetheless, it said the country's economic outlook was 'highly uncertain with risks tilted to the downside. Madagascar continues to face risks associated with social fragility, weak state capacity, and climate shocks.'
The IMF expressed concerns about the growing risk of political tensions in the run-up to November's election, saying 'persistent food insecurity, higher prices, high levels of perceived corruption, and growing poverty could exacerbate popular discontent. Banditry, cattle rustling, and lawlessness affect rural security and weaken state control.'
All this means that 81.7% of Malagasy still live below the international poverty line, and over one million in a population of about 30 million rely on World Food Programme handouts. It's clear from both the Bertelsmann and IMF reports that poor governance - largely derived from Rajoelina's exercise of almost unchecked power - is the major drag on the kind of economic growth that could help that 81.7% out of poverty.
The arbitrariness of Rajoelina's exercise of power was evident last year when his government banned Airlink, the only South African airline flying the Johannesburg-Antananarivo route. South Africa had refused to hand over three smugglers and their 79 kg of unwrought gold. The economically damaging ban lasted eight months, forcing travellers to take more expensive indirect routes. No worry to Rajoelina, apparently.
This is the epitome of the extreme personalisation of power.
Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria