MADAGASCAR ELECTIONS: Fireworks and thumping music hit the message home as top three contenders vie for highest office
Whether the full stadiums at the final election rallies in Madagascar at the weekend would result in a successful vote for each of the three main presidency candidates – or whether it would result in a turnout better than the 50% optimistically expected by observers – will be apparent on Wednesday.
Some top-notch political theatre played out in the final campaigns before Madagascar’s presidential elections on Wednesday, even though the substance was mostly pretty vanilla-flavoured and corruption remained the elephant in the room.
Boom, boom, boom rang the fireworks, exploding into spectacular sparks in the night sky to the wordless tune of Black Eyed Peas’ Where is the Love from large speakers. The cheering crowd raised their fingers in the sign of peace, and surged this way and then that, like the sea, a dark-skinned current of bodies pressed up dangerously close to each other, squashing the muscled bodyguards against the stage they are supposed to protect. Every so often a child was pulled up from under the flow and passed overhead to the stage to prevent them from being trampled on.
Earlier these same guards pushed, shoved, and even beat members of the crowd to restrain them from engulfing the stage or blocking the path of the campaign team and their leader. The close bodyguards even carried guns.
Four rows ahead of us, Andry Rajoelina, in orange trousers and a fresh white linen shirt, rose to speak. The 44-year-old with the boyish good looks and easy smile is one of 36 candidates vying for Madagascar’s presidency.
Sunday was the final chance to make a stand before campaigning closed ahead of the first round of voting on Wednesday. Only three candidates – all of them recycled presidents – managed to fill their stadiums in a substantial enough way to indicate that they could be serious contenders: Rajoelina, who acquired the presidency by unconstitutional means (the international community damningly called it a coup, but his campaigners don’t like that word) in 2009, Marc Ravalomanana, who was in charge from 2002 but overthrown by Rajoelina, and Hery Rajaonarimampianina, who took over from Rajoelina in 2014 and stepped down earlier in 2018 after the country’s constitutional court ruled that a transitional government should organise the poll. If no candidate gets above 50% in Wednesday’s poll, only the top two can go through to the second round on 19 December.
Rajoelina is taking no chances, and even though nobody has disclosed their campaign funding, he threw the most money at it. That’s clear by the way his posters and T-shirts – an estimated five million for a voting population of 10 million – dominate the scene.
Madagascar’s election campaigns have ranked as among the most expensive in the world.
On Saturday Rajoelina packed out the Antsonjombe Colosseum amphitheatre with tens of thousands of supporters, and on Sunday he flew the hour and a half down to the seaside town of Toliara to conclude his campaign.
The guard of honour formed by locals on foot, bicycle or motorbike on the road to the stadium was impressive, with a kind of choreographed spontaneity.
Rajoelina travelled with a blue light brigade, the noise creating the kind of electricity that enters from the gut and sometimes fails to reach the brain altogether.
His Paris-based PR team embedded two French journalists and myself – plane tickets covered – in the campaign for a few days, which gave Rajoelina reason to boast to the crowd about the international media attention.
Rajoelina dreams in moving images and his speech, interspersed with singing acts (his former life as a DJ is coming in handy), was accompanied by footage on large screens: enclosed living quarters with Miami-style villas, complete with sparkling white sofas, boulevards filled with cars, shining shopping malls, solar panels for electricity to the rural areas, satellite systems to curb zebu cattle theft, military hardware, and so forth. Incidentally, on Thursday he sat down a number of sympathetic middle-class civil society groups and thought leaders in a three-hour session in the under-utilised International Convention Centre in Antananarivo to flesh out his policies after accusations that he made grand promises with no substance.
Rajoelina’s supporters, however, believe. Roland Ravoneson, a 60-year-old English teacher who attended the amphitheatre rally on Saturday, said Rajoelina “is the best president of Madagascar. During the transition he didn’t receive a gift from outside, he’s best to help Madagascar,” he said, with reference to the international sanctions following Rajoelina’s seizure of power.
“He built this stadium, hospitals, and many many things.”
The infrastructure refrain is repeated by a number of his supporters, who also admiringly said the successful enterpreneur spent the past four years preparing himself for the presidency and collecting money for the campaign.
Others, however, view him as a power-grabber. A young man with a white T-shirt bearing Ravalomanana’s face, following his Saturday rally in Antananarivo’s Mahamasina stadium, says Ravalomanana should come back to finish his work as president.
Ravalomanana, a dairy mogul who spent his five years of exile in South Africa, was in power during a period of good economic growth, and he’s also been credited with opening the French-orientated island state to the world.
Ravalomanana, who in the later years of his tenure was accused of increasing authoritarianism, is seen by some as the “South African candidate”.
“He saw a lot of infrastructure and development in his time in South Africa, and is campaigning to do the same thing here in Madagascar,” a young voter in Antananarivo explained.
After addressing 157 meetings in the month of campaigning, Ravalomanana’s voice was hoarse during his final rally on Saturday, about five kilometres from Rajoelina’s rally. Supporters from the opposing sides were boastful but generally peaceful when their paths crossed in town.
Rajaonarimampianina on Sunday followed in Rajoelina’s act by also filling the Antsonjombe Colosseum, even though the campaign theatrics were fewer.
“My projects are realistic,” the recent president explained, and said he had the support of international donors. He also tried to capitalise on the fact that he stepped down voluntarily earlier in 2018 – following a wave of protests about electoral reforms that would have excluded some of the opposition, and an eventual order by the constitutional court that a caretaker government should organise the ballot. His supporters mention this voluntary relinquishing of power as one of his strong points, saying he’s law-abiding, and also point out that he should be allowed to continue his work started in his just-ended term.
Whether the full stadiums would result in a successful vote for each of the three candidates – or whether it would result in a turnout better than the 50% optimistically expected by observers – will be apparent on Wednesday. Many at the rallies were not of voting age, and fellow journalists reported hearing that some claimed to have received money. Almost all got T-shirts.
Corruption has featured surprisingly low in all of the big campaigns, even though Madagascar is ranked among the 10 poorest in the world for living standards. Transparency International said it believed the campaigns of the biggest contenders were fuelled by the illegal trade in endangered rosewood.
Amnesty International on Saturday added its voice by saying it believed environmental activists had been targeted for speaking out against this trade. Regional deputy regional director for Southern Africa, Muleya Mwananyanda, said:
“In Madagascar it has become very dangerous to speak out against the illegal trafficking of rosewood and environmental degradation caused by multinational corporations.”
The thousands of people mesmerised by promises and rock shows will be hoping for more than just burnt-out fireworks by the end of the elections. DM
Disclosure: Andry Rajoelina’s campaign covered part of the expenses for the reporting trip to Madagascar.