There was a presidential election in Madagascar on Oct. 25. Thirty-three candidates were on the ballot, and nobody got a majority. According to the Malagasy constitution, the top two vote getters must go to a runoff on Dec. 20. The biggest vote went to Jean Louis Robinson, with 21.1 percent, with Hery Rajaonarimampianina second, at 15.9 percent.
Madagascar is a huge island off the East Coast of Africa, with a population of 22 million. It was first settled two thousand years ago or more by travelers from Borneo, with later additions from the African continent. Madagascar has unique flora and fauna, much of which is now threatened by expanding human economic activities.
For a long time an independent kingdom, Madagascar was seized by France in 1896, and exploited as a colony. When the French empire was fatally weakened by World War II and defeats in Vietnam and Algeria, and after a large-scale mass rebellion, Madagascar got its independence in 1960.
The first highly authoritarian government, headed by Philibert Tsirinana, was little more than a continuation of French colonial rule by another name, but that government was overthrown and subsequent ones tried, like other African countries, to disentangle themselves from European control by bidding for support from the Soviet Union and its allies, as well as China.
After the fall of Soviet and Eastern European socialism, Madagascar's trade relations have followed the same pattern as those of most other African countries; that is, the country is stuck in a pattern of having to lure "foreign direct investment" focused on tapping the subsoil wealth, by accepting trade agreements favorable to its trading partners (of which France is still the largest), and unfavorable to ordinary Malagasy citizens. The country also depends on foreign aid from international donors.
Thus, Madagascar today is one of the richest nations in the region, and one of the poorest. It has vast natural resources (gold, nickel, cobalt, petroleum), but 92 percent of its people live on $2.00 per day or less. Like other nations in Africa, vast profits are obtained by foreign corporations through the exploitation of the subsoil wealth, while ordinary Malagasy citizens eke out a living through hardscrabble farming. Weather fluctuations cause frequent famines.
Dissatisfaction about this state of affairs has led to periodic grassroots protest movements, sometimes ending in the ouster of the government in power. During the presidency of Marc Ravalomanana (2002-2009), Madagascar made some economic progress; however the wealth brought in by foreign investment and trade was not seen as benefiting ordinary people. Ravalomanana was also criticized for his authoritarianism. The last straw was the revelation that his government had signed an agreement with the South Korean Daewoo Logistics Corporation whereby about half of the arable farmland in Madagascar would be transferred, by a long-term lease, to Daewoo's control, to be developed into industrial farming production for the Korean market.
Comments by Daewoo executives created extreme fear that the farm plan might leave millions destitute. Daewoo said the plan would create 45,000 jobs for Malagasy citizens, but the people feared many more would be displaced.
This led to protests in 2009 in which Andry Rajoelina, the young mayor of the capital, Antananarivo, and a successful former disk jockey and media entrepreneur, played a leading role. President Ravalomanana responded by closing Rajoelina's TV station and dismissing him as mayor. Violent conflicts between the supporters of Ravalomanana and Rajoelina left more than a hundred dead. Sections of the armed forces intervened on Rajoelina's side, and Ravalomanana went into exile. Rajoelina ended up as interim president of Madagascar. One of his first acts was to cancel the Daewoo deal.
The "international community," meaning the European Union, the United States, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the African Union and others reacted angrily to punish Madagascar for "breaching constitutional norms." Foreign investment has dropped from $1.36 billion in 2009 to $.46 billion this year. Most foreign assistance disappeared. Living conditions in Madagascar have plummeted. The environment is being trashed (for example, the great forests are being cut down to supply foreign purchasers of high quality wood). And the Daewoo deal may be revived.
Long negotiations preceded last month's elections. It was agreed that neither Rajoelina nor Ravalomanana could run. Ravalomanana and his allies support Robinson, while Rajoelina and his followers will back Rajaonarimampianina. The two candidates are now vying for the support of the other 31 candidates.
Whoever wins will find himself faced with the same dilemma that Madagascar and other poor countries have faced for decades. The country's great natural wealth can only be tapped for balanced national development, of a kind that would improve the living standards of the people, via the activities of foreign companies that are looking out for their own profits, and foreign governments with their own economic and geopolitical agendas. So things stay the same, states are weak and political instability is endemic. Getting out of this bind will require the kind of political realignments that have occurred in much of Latin America over the past decade, at the very least.
Photo: People wait to vote at a polling station in Antananarivo, Madagascar. (Schalk van Zuydam/AP)