Madagascar has kicked off its presidential election after a turbulent campaign period marred by boycotts and allegations of election irregularities.
Voting commenced smoothly on Thursday morning in the Indian Ocean nation, according to the AFP news agency, despite an overnight curfew and months of protests leading up to the election.
President Andry Rajoelina, a former DJ who first came to power with the backing of the army in 2009, is seeking a second consecutive term in office.
His opponents say Rajoelina should be disqualified and accuse him of waging an “institutional coup” to stay in power.
Ten key opposition candidates have called on voters to shun the elections.
They have organised street protests in the capital, Antananarivo, almost every day in recent weeks, with police dispersing many with tear gas and arresting dozens of demonstrators.
“We appeal to everyone not to vote. Conditions for a transparent presidential election, accepted by all, have not been met,” Roland Ratsiraka, one of the protesting candidates, said on Tuesday.
“We do not want to participate in this fraud, it is a joke on Madagascar.”
Rajoelina has brushed off criticism and expressed confidence that he will secure re-election in the first round of voting.
Controversial re-election bid
Madagascar has been in turmoil since media reports in June revealed Rajoelina had acquired French nationality in 2014.
Under local law, the president should have lost his Madagascan nationality, and with it, the ability to lead the country, his opponents said.
Rajoelina has denied trying to conceal his naturalisation, saying he became French to allow his children to pursue their studies abroad and that he has not been notified of any loss of his Madagascan nationality.
“The law is clear, but nobody is taking the responsibility to apply it properly,” said William Rasoanaivo, locally known as POV, an award-winning political cartoonist exiled in Mauritius.
Rajoelina’s challengers have been further angered by a ruling allowing for an ally of the president to lead the nation temporarily after Rajoelina resigned in line with the constitution to stand for re-election.
They have also complained about electoral irregularities.
“People have become aware of the dictatorship we live under,” said 55-year-old Malagasy resident Chrishani Andrianono, complaining that after 11 years in power, Rajoelina had achieved little.
“We do not see what he did for us,” he said.
Other residents said they were primarily concerned about economic challenges in what is one of the world’s poorest countries.
“What matters to us is first and foremost is getting by on a daily basis,” said Benedicte Lalaoarison, a 61-year-old underwear seller in the Analakely market in central Antananarivo.
Strong turnout needed
Rajoelina – who first took power in 2009 on the back of a coup, then skipped the following elections only to make a winning comeback in 2018 – has ploughed ahead despite the tensions.
As his opponents refused to campaign, he flew across the country by private plane, showcasing schools, roads and hospitals built during his tenure.
His campaign has condemned those calling for a boycott, accusing them of trying to “sabotage” the vote and hold the nation “hostage”.
“It is irresponsible to encourage voters not to vote,” said Rajoelina’s campaign spokeswoman Lalatiana Rakotondrazafy.
Eleven million people are registered to vote in the country of about 30 million.
Facing a wide boycott, a strong turnout will be key for Rajoelina.
Less than 55 percent of those registered showed up for the first round of voting at the last elections in 2018.
The island nation is the leading global producer of vanilla, but has struggled with persistent poverty, with three-fourths of people living in poverty.
Madagascar has been shaken by successive political crises since independence from France in 1960.