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Mauritius should worry about what comes after the elections in Madagascar

21 novembre 2023, 19:20


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Mauritius should worry about what comes after the elections in Madagascar

Madagascar headed to the polls on Thursday as incumbent president Andry Rajoelina looked for re-election. But with the bulk of the opposition boycotting the elections and after a month of street protests, here is why Mauritius should be worried of what comes after those elections. And why it does not want another bout of political instability in its giant neighbour.

The elections and the boycott

Thursday saw Madagascar headed to the polls with incumbent President Andry Rajoelina, who has been in power since 2018, looking for a second successive term. The elections themselves were initially scheduled for November 9, but a court in October delayed the polls to November 16. But this election has also been unusual for another reason: most of the opposition simply boycotted the polls. The *Collectif des 10 *– a grouping of opposition candidates opposed to Rajoelina and including former presidents – announced they were not taking part in the election, leaving Rajoelina to be challenged by Siteny Randrianasoloniako, a former ally in the President’s MAPAR coalition and judo champion widely believed to be supported by Moscow as Rajoelina’s sole challenger. The result was a reportedly low turnout – less than 40 per cent according to initial estimates by the election commission – and with provisional results expected to be released between November 24 and 25. Should no candidate win more than 50 per cent of the vote, a second round has been planned for December 20.

There are numerous reasons for the opposition deciding to stay away from the polls; firstly, they claim that Rajoelina was ineligible to run in the first place. In July this year, the opposition revealed that Rajoelina had obtained French nationality in 2014. In their view, Malagasy law prohibits dual nationality, technically stripping Rajoelina of his Malagasy nationality. Rajoelina shot back by saying that he only took the French passport to allow his children to study abroad and that the law did not specifically prohibit dual nationals from running for President. In September, the country’s highest court ruled that Rajoelina was eligible to run in the election.

Secondly, the opposition demanded that new people be put in charge of the electoral commission and that a special court to hear election disputes be established. And thirdly, since March this year the interior ministry had banned public protests. The near-daily protests organized by the opposition parties have thus been labelled as illegal and broken up with tear-gas leading to the injury of two candidates on October 7. The spiralling violence ahead of the poll led the UN Human Rights Office to accuse Malagasy authorities of using “unnecessary and disproportionate force” against protesters. With the bulk of the opposition staying away from the election, what is important is not so much the results of the election themselves, but what follows after it and the extent to which it is accepted as legitimate.

The roots of the instability

The roots of the current political instability in Madagascar go back a long way. And involve a heady mix of personal and business rivalries and the tendency of Malagasy politicians to try to rope in external powers into their domestic politics. In 2002, Didier Ratsiraka, Madagascar’s longest-serving president between 1975-1993 and then again from 1997-2002, was ousted in an election by Marc Ravalomanana, a dairy tycoon and former mayor of the capital Antananarivo. With Ratsiraka gone into exile, Ravalomanana began re-orienting Madagascar away from France and towards the US leading to an influx of American aid. Many in the old French-leaning Ratsiraka camp saw their political and economic influence wane under Ravalomana’s new direction. The latter was also accused of taking over many formerly state-owned enterprises through his company ‘Tiko’. This opposition to Ravalomanana picked up steam in opposition to two of his policies: buying a second presidential jet in 2008 for $60 million, leading the IMF and World Bank to freeze $35 million in aid to the country, and a deal with South Korea’s Daewoo logistics that would have seen 3.2 million acres (half the country’s arable land) handed over to the company to cultivate corn and palm oil.

This opposition coalesced around former mayor of Antananarivo and media tycoon Andry Rajoelina, whose rise many speculated was engineered by the old Ratsiraka establishment. Rajoelina had his own axes to grind against Ravalomanana: back in 2003 Ravalomanana had removed advertising panels owned by Rajoelina’s company ‘Injet’ from the capital and in 2008 had moved against Rajoelina’s television station ‘Viva Tv’ for airing interviews with Ratsiraka. Rajoelina headed protests against Ravalomanana’s government eventually turning into a coup in 2009 after the military switched its backing to Rajoelina and declared him as president in March 2009.

Ravalomanana, who had to go into exile to South Africa, declared that “today Madagascar is governed by a group of bandits, led by Andry Rajoelina and supported by the French”. Moreover, since 2019 Russia has been accused of backing candidates in Malagasy elections and getting involved in its media landscape, it is only adding more complexity to a political divide that is still traditionally split between an anglophile camp leaning towards the US headed initially by Ravalomanana and the old French-leaning political and economic elite that first flocked around Ratsiraka and now follow Rajoelina.

The record

While Rajoelina relinquished power in 2014 after losing to Hery Rajaonarimampianina (also one of Rajoelina’s challengers today), he returned to power after winning an election in 2018. While Rajoelina has projected himself as “the builder President” pointing to an expansion in the number of schools and hospitals built under his watch, as well as a 360-km motorway linking the capital Anatananarivo to the port of Toamasina, 75 per cent of the country’s 28 million people still live below the poverty line, with only a quarter having access to electricity. Even these, since a crisis within the state’s utility company JIRAMA, are subjected to recurrent power and water cuts. And Rajoelina’s development projects have been impacted by instability within his government having undergone five cabinet reshuffles since 2019.

Agriculture, on which 80 per cent of the country depends for its livelihood, has been hit in recent years by a combination of a severe drought in the south in 2021, which the World Food Programme called a “catastrophe” and mismanagement of its main agricultural export vanilla. Madagascar supplies 80 per cent of the world’s vanilla and its exports are a key foreign exchange earner for the government as well as for the 80,000 people involved in the industry and responsible for the country’s Sava region to be the most prosperous in the country. However, over the past three years, the Rajoelina government has imposed a minimum support price of $250 per kilo of vanilla in an effort to shield cultivators from price fluctuations. However, with the drop in vanilla prices worldwide in recent years, the policy has led to stockpiles of hundreds of tonnes of unsold vanilla building up, hitting smallholder farmers in the region and leading to a 25 per cent drop in the value of the ariary against the dollar. In April this year, Rajoelina admitted that the policy was a “mistake” and moved towards liberalizing the market.

On the political front, Rajoelina in 2020 moved to reduce the size of Madagascar’s senate (its upper house) from 63 to 33, out of which 11 are appointed by Rajoelina, in a move to strengthen government control over the legislature, leading to an opposition boycott. He also appointed loyalists to the National Electoral Commission and appointed three judges at the high constitutional court. Reportedly, in the run-up to the elections, Malagasy politicians were also hiring teams of trolls to create and spread fake news about their opponents on Facebook. Moreover, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Rajoelina threw his weight behind marketing an herbal tonic as a cure for the virus globally. In July 2021, the government announced that it had uncovered a plot dubbed ‘Apollo 21’ to assassinate Rajoelina and senior figures within his administration and orchestrate a coup leading to the arrest of former French army colonel Philippe Francois and Paul Rafanoharana, a French-Malagasy dual national.

The stakes for Mauritius

For Mauritius the stakes are high when it comes to the outcome and what follows the election. Beginning the 1990s, Mauritian businesses – particularly in the textile industry – began outsourcing their more labour-intensive operations in Madagascar. Today, major conglomerates such as the Rogers Group, IBL, Currimjee, Food and Allied and Altima have set up subsidiaries in commerce, poultry, financial services, and telecoms in Madagascar.

The 2009 coup that originally brought Rajoelina to power rattled Mauritian business; in its wake the African Union in 2010 imposed sanctions on Rajoelina and his government followed by the European Union which froze aid to the country and the US that ejected Madagascar from its AGOA trade programme. What resulted was 70 per cent of Madagascar’s national budget being wiped out, exports to the country’s largest trading partner the US plunging by 70 per cent leading to the loss of between 50,000 and 100,000 jobs in the country and a generalized capital flight. It was only after Rajaonarimampianina replaced Rajoelina in 2014 that the economy of Madagascar was brought out of the deep freeze: with economic ties with the US and exports restored by its re-inclusion in AGOA and EU’s support resuming with a first €518 million aid package from the European Commission. To help kickstart economic ties between Mauritius and Madagascar, Rajaonarimampianina visited Mauritius in 2016 and then his successor Rajoelina in March 2019.

Before Covid-19, 43 per cent the Rs3.9 billion invested by Mauritian businesses abroad were directed to Africa, including Madagascar. And since its re-vamp in 2015, the Mauritian government’s Africa Fund has signed deals with African states to set up special economic zones – totalling 348 hectares – including in Madagascar. There the Mauritian government is looking to clinch a deal for 80 hectares of land to develop a textile city in Moramanga linked to the port of Taomasina. Historically one of the largest investors in Madagascar now looking to deepen that economic relationship, the last thing that the Mauritian government and business would want to see is a return of political instability in Madagascar that could potentially see a return to the bad old days when Madagascar was cut off from the regional and global economy.

The problem however is not just one of economic interest. The political and economic instability that plagued Mauritius’ big neighbour between 2009 and 2014 led to Madagascar’s emergence as a key smuggling point for everything from wildlife, gems, timber to drugs. The dysfunction in Madagascar in those years allowed for a rich collection of drug smugglers from Mauritius, Nigeria, Tanzania, Guinea and Seychelles to set up shop in Madagascar from where they oversaw an increased influx of drugs such as heroin and cannabis into countries like Mauritius. Heroin, due to the increased supply coming along the ‘southern route’ from Afghanistan, and cannabis because political and economic instability had led to people in areas such as Ankarana, Ambania and Anosy taking up cannabis cultivation. With little capacity in Madagascar to patrol its 5,000-km shoreline and limited Mauritian capacity to patrol its own shores and waters either, unsurprisingly a lot of these drugs have ended up on Mauritian streets. A stable and prosperous Madagascar should very much be a priority for Mauritius. And whether that happens will depend not just on what happens in the polls. But, perhaps more importantly, on what comes after.