No Man's Island: Political Paralysis in Madagascar

By Mattis, Aaron | Harvard International Review, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

No Man's Island: Political Paralysis in Madagascar


Mattis, Aaron, Harvard International Review


Madagascar, the world's fourth-largest island and a treasure trove of unique flora and fauna, is prone to disaster. Tropical Storm Hubert wreaked havoc on the island's shores in March 2010, leaving 37,000 homeless. And according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the Malagasy people should brace themselves for another impending threat: record swarms of locusts are expected to decimate the country's crops once the rainy season arrives. Perhaps Madagascar's climate has a sense of irony, unleashing a plague of locusts on a country suffering from a political crisis of biblical proportions.

Andry Rajoelina, a wealthy media entrepreneur and former mayor of Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital, declared himself President in January 2009, effectively instigating a coup against the government of twice-elected President Marc Ravalomanana. The ensuing rash of protests against the Ravalomanana government often turned violent; around 100 Malagasy had died in the protests by March 2009, 20 to 30 of them in a single February episode of retaliation by Ravalomanana's security forces. Eventually the army threw its support behind Rajoelina, forcing Ravalomanana to abdicate power and flee the country. From the start, Rajoelina, who, at the age of 36, had to force constitutional reform so he could meet the age requirement for the presidency, has failed to achieve legitimacy domestically or internationally. Virtually every world power, including the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union (AU), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the World Bank, has refused to recognize the current Malagasy regime, called for Rajoelina to step down, and either levied economic penalties against Madagascar or threatened to do so. These sanctions have not in any way brought an end to the political crisis; on the contrary, the international hostility directed at Madagascar has entrenched political divisions and exacerbated the country's concurrent economic and humanitarian crises.

The goal of sanctions and other forms of economic pressure is to force a regime to accede to the wishes of the international community--in this case, they want Rajoelina to restore democracy to Madagascar. During Madagascar's year of political turmoil, however, a diplomatic solution to the political crisis has become increasingly unlikely. Since deposing Ravalomanana, Rajoelina has accepted or initiated several attempts to reach political compromise, but none has borne fruit. Fall 2009 negotiations to establish an interim government until elections and a constitutional referendum could be held, fell apart when Ravalomanana boycotted the final meetings, citing an unwillingness to support even a temporary government headed by Rajoelina. Rajoelina subsequently backed out of the deal, firing an interim prime minister chosen during the negotiations and submitting his own unilateral election plans, which the SADC summarily rejected in January 2010. Further AU-brokered attempts to build a power-sharing arrangement in early 2010 dissolved that April.

Madagascar has been in a state of political stalemate ever since. Rajoelina has continued to act more or less unilaterally, announcing in August 2010 that Madagascar would hold a constitutional referendum in November 2010 and elections in mid-2011. Rajoelina's plan has the support of about 100 Malagasy political parties; the catch is that the country's three major opposition parties, which participated in the initial power-sharing negotiations in fall 2009, are not among them. Without major-party support, ostensibly democratic exercises, such as elections, are, in practice, indistinguishable from the autocratic whims of an illegitimate regime. In September 2010, the Rajoelina administration further distanced itself from any meaningful democratic compromise by sentencing Ravalomanana in absentia to hard labor for life for his role in the February 2009 violence against protesters, a move denounced as obstructive to the peace process by the SADC and South Africa. …

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