Madagascar votes for new leader, hoping to end crisis
12/20/2013 16:16 GMT
by Jean LIOU
ANTANANARIVO, December 20, 2013 (AFP) - Voting in Madagascar's presidential run-off came to a close Friday, with observers hailing an atmosphere of calm during an election aimed at restoring democracy and pulling the island from crisis.
Polling stations began closing at 5:00 pm (1400 GMT), though some stayed open for people already in the queue by then.
The election commission and observers contacted by AFP said voting was calm, though turnout low in some areas.
"From what we've observed up to now is that everything happened as normal," said EU observer chief Maria Muniz de Urquiza.
"We haven't received negative reports from our observers deployed across the country."
National paramilitary police commander Richard Ravalomanana meanwhile said: "In the first round there were a few incidents in rural areas, but we've heard nothing during the second round."
Islanders queued to cast ballots from 06:00 am (0300 GMT) in the hope of ending a crisis sparked by a 2009 coup which paralysed much of the government and caused foreign donors to cancel aid.
"I really want to see change in this country. For the past five years it's been truly horrible," said Fanjatiana Ramanantsoa as she stood in line to vote at a primary school in the capital Antananarivo.
Madagascar's main political rivals -- interim leader Andry Rajoelina and the man he ousted, Marc Ravalomanana -- were barred from running amid international pressure over fears of a return to violence.
Instead, vying for victory are the pair's proxy candidates who won the top two places during an inconclusive first round of voting on October 25.
Robinson Jean Louis, 61, a doctor and former health minister, is seen as a slight favourite after winning 21.16 percent in the first round.
He enjoys the support of exiled leader Ravalomanana, who addressed his rallies via phone from South Africa.
"This is a turning point in the history of Madagascar," Jean Louis told AFP after casting his ballot, adding that he would wait for the results before celebrating.
His opponent, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, 55, is an astute businessman and former finance minister under Rajoelina
"I am still a new force and I've added a bit of a unifying force to the second round," he said before the vote.
He urged donors and investors to return to the island.
"I've told them before and I say it again, I'm going to put in place the rule of law and good governance," the candidate, who won 15.85 percent in the first round, told AFP.
But the country was not united behind one candidate, according to voter Henri Rakotomalala.
"It is hard to see who will be elected. The Malagasy are divided," he said.
Many voters in the capital support Jean Louis and are nostalgic for the Ravalomanana years, from 2002 to 2009, when the country enjoyed relatively strong economic growth.
The milkman-turned-political magnate rose from obscurity to become a powerful businessman and then president.
He was forced from office by Rajoelina, then mayor of Antananarivo, amid violent street protests by Madagascans angry at Ravalomanana's perceived authoritarianism and failure to spread the wealth.
Jean Louis has vowed to allow his mentor Ravalomanana to return from exile.
More than 7.9 million Madagascans were eligible to vote in the elections, which also selected 151 lawmakers in a single-round parliamentary vote.
Both candidates have promised a vast infrastructure construction programme for the island, which is roughly the size of Ukraine and has a population of 22 million.
Nine out of 10 people in Madagascar live on less than $2 a day.
Economic growth reached just 3.1 percent last year, lagging well behind most fast-growing African nations. The World Bank has estimated the country's political crisis has cost Madagascar around $8 billion in lost growth.
Initial results are expected this weekend.
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