After weeks of political violence, voters on the island nation of Madagascar went to the polls on Thursday to elect a president, even though 10 of the 13 candidates called for a boycott, accusing the man they are vying to replace of unfairly tilting the process in his favor.
Most of the 30 million residents of this nation off the southeastern coast of Africa live in poverty. A series of weather-related catastrophes in recent years have damaged the country’s agricultural production, its economic mainstay, increasing the humanitarian crisis.
Madagascar is heavily reliant on foreign aid, and there are fears that a disputed election could cause some benefactors to pull back support, which “will lead the country to a chaotic situation,” said Andoniaina Ratsimamanga, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross, which is helping with the humanitarian response in Madagascar.
Political instability has been a defining feature of Madagascar’s elections over the years, and the 2018 race saw efforts by Russia to influence the outcome through the paramilitary organization the Wagner Group. It is unclear whether Russia has any involvement in this year’s election, or how much.
Since campaigning began in early October, demonstrators and security forces have clashed at political rallies and protests, where supporters of opposition candidates have been beaten, arrested and shot at with rubber bullets and tear gas while protesting an election system they believe to be rigged.
The leader of Madagascar’s National Assembly, as well as dozens of civil society organizations in the country, have called for the country’s election commission to postpone voting because of the instability. The U.N., several European countries and the United States have all raised concerns about the government’s violent crackdown of election rallies.
Almost all the candidates are asking voters to stay away from the polls because they say that the most recent president, Andry Rajoelina, has unfairly benefited from state institutions run by his loyalists.
Mr. Rajoelina, by law, stepped down in September to run for re-election, but largely enjoys the powers of incumbency. The 10 candidates say that state security forces have disrupted their campaigning; that judges Mr. Rajoelina is aligned with made rulings in his favor; and that the national election commission is stacked with his allies. They also say that Mr. Rajoelina is ineligible to hold office because he obtained French citizenship, arguing that the law requires him to renounce his Malagasy nationality as a result.
“It’s not fair and transparent,” Marc Ravalomanana, one of the candidates and himself a former president of the country, said in a telephone interview. Mr. Ravalomanana is a longtime nemesis of Mr. Rajoelina, who displaced him in a coup in 2009.
“It’s been rigged,” Mr. Ravalomanana said of this race.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Rajoelina pushed back, saying that the same rules and institutions overseeing previous elections in which Mr. Rajoelina did not prevail applied in this contest.
“There are no tensions or political crises in Madagascar, just politicians who are candidates but don’t want to go to the polls, and who are doing everything they can to create unrest,” the spokeswoman, Lalatiana Rakotondrazafy, wrote in a text message.
“Constitutional order must be respected, and voters must be allowed to do their civic duty calmly,” she added.
Mr. Rajoelina, a former disc jockey, ruled a transitional government after staging the coup in 2009, but did not retain power in the 2013 election. He regained power in the most recent election, in 2018.
Since the country’s independence from France in 1960, only the past two elections — in 2013 and 2018 — are considered to have had peaceful handovers of power. And even in those contests, there were disputes and challenges over who could run, and the results.
The violence this year pales in comparison to what happened during the 2009 coup, when protesters burned buildings and many people died, said Ms. Ratsimamanga, the Red Cross spokeswoman. This year, the political opponents of Mr. Rajoelina have staged rallies attended by thousands of people who have been largely peaceful, she said, but they have often been met by a hostile military response.
“Honestly, I think it’s quite exaggerated,” she said of the military’s response, “because on the other side they don’t really have any arms.”
In a statement released last month, the U.N. said it was “concerned by the deteriorating human rights situation in Madagascar,” adding that “security forces used unnecessary and disproportionate force to disperse four peaceful protests in two weeks.”
A few days later, a coalition of embassies, including the European Union, the United States and Japan, issued a joint statement supporting the U.N.’s position, urging “everyone to exercise the utmost restraint.” The United States gave $400,000 to Madagascar’s election commission this year to promote education and awareness around the election.
At least one opposition candidate who believes that Mr. Rajoelina is unfairly attempting to tilt the election in his favor is pushing ahead with his campaign to defeat him.
Siteny Randrianasoloniaiko, a former judo champion who is now running for the presidency, said boycotting the election was risky because it could allow Mr. Rajoelina to be unopposed for re-election. He is encouraging his supporters to vote, saying that if they discover any discrepancies in the electoral process, he and his team will challenge the outcome.
“Let’s see,” he said in an interview. “Let’s wait and see.”