Although Madagascar is no stranger to political tumult, its long history of contested elections and deep-seated political rivalries has peaked ahead of upcoming presidential elections. As the country faces yet another political crisis, this piece will look at its context and key events along with the crisis’ impact across the nation with widespread protests and growing concern about democratic backsliding.
The roots of Madagascar’s current crisis can be traced back to the 2009 ouster of President Marc Ravalomanana (TGV, centre-left) amid a protest movement led by Andry Rajoelina (TGV, centre-left), the then-Mayor of Antananarivo. Once opposition-aligned soldiers forced Ravalomanana to resign and leave the country, the military named Rajoelina as President of the High Transitional Authority — de facto head of state — in a move that the international community and Ravalomanana labeled a coup d’état. As the international community rejected the transition, Madagascar and its economy were isolated from key partners until negotiations brokered by the Southern African Development Community and African Union reached a resolution — the scheduling of long-awaited elections. After several setbacks, including attempts by Rajoelina and Ravalomanana to circumvent the international community’s demand that neither man run for president, the elections held in late 2013 with Rajoelina-supported Hery Rajaonarimampianina (HVM, *) defeating Ravalomanana-backed Jean Louis Robinson (AVANA, *).
However, wishes that the new election would bring political stability were short-lived as parliamentary allies of both Rajoelina and Ravalomanana voted to remove Rajaonarimampianina from office less than 18 months into his term. Although the High Constitutional Court struck down the impeachment effort, the rest of Rajaonarimampianina’s tenure was controversial and he failed to consolidate an electoral base of his own by 2018 when both Ravalomanana and Rajoelina were not barred from running for president. In that election, Rajaonarimampianina was eliminated with less than 9% in the first round while Rajoelina (39%) and Ravalomanana (35%) advanced to a second round to finally face each other after a decade of rivalry. In a hard-fought election, Rajoelina defeated Ravalomanana by an 11% margin to regain the presidency — this time through the ballot box.
Much like his first term in office, Rajoelina’s second term has been beset by challenges, from the COVID-19 pandemic to a famine in the south, but his own decisions have come under question as well. Rajoelina aggressively promoted a herbal drink to combat the pandemic, his close ally was arrested on bribery charges in London, and he was revealed to hold French citizenship. That final scandal was the most dangerous as the dual citizenship should have rendered Rajoelina ineligible to serve as president, but the High Constitutional Court dismissed an attempt to disqualify him from this year’s presidential election in September and confirmed him as a valid candidate, triggering the current crisis.
Once he was confirmed as a candidate, Rajoelina did something that most other world leaders would never consider: he resigned. A crucial element of the Malagasy system is a constitutional resign-to-run clause that requires incumbent presidents to relinquish power if they seek re-election, with the the President of the Senate becoming Acting President. The system, meant to allow for neutral governance and electoral administration, worked in 2018 when Rajaonarimampianina stepped down and then-Senate President Rivo Rakotovao (HVM) took temporary power; however, 2023 was a different story as Senate President Herimanana Razafimahefa (TGV) sent a letter to the High Constitutional Court declining the presidency for “personal reasons.” Amid the unprecedented situation, the court ruled that acting presidential powers would be held by a “collegial government” of the Cabinet, led by Prime Minister Christian Ntsay (independent). Immediately, the opposition balked at the ruling: not only was the move without clear legal backing, Ntsay is a close ally of Rajoelina whose neutrality was under question.
Mass protests ensued, with opposition candidates leading the demonstrations and labeling the situation as an “institutional coup” in a joint letter to the electoral commission. The opposition soon demanded more than just a new transitional government, with a focus on ensuring the independence of electoral authorities and establishing a special electoral court. The protests were met with crackdowns by the police, resulting in injuries to numerous protesters and opposition candidates — including former President Ravalomanana and Andry Raobelina (ARB, * — not to be confused with Rajoelina). The injury to Raobelina forced him to seek treatment in Mauritius, prompting him to successfully petition the High Constitutional Court to postpone the presidential elections from 9 November to 16 November.
The situation took another dramatic turn on 9 October when Senate President Razafimahefa, in a stunning revelation, claimed that he had been threatened into declining the acting presidency in September by Rajoelina allies and expressed a willingness to now assume the role in a statement to the High Constitutional Court. However, Rajoelina’s allies in the Senate — who comprise all senators due to an opposition boycott of 2020 Senate elections — swiftly moved to oust Razafimahefa, citing alleged “mental impairment” in an extraconstitutionally-convened special legislative session. The next day, the Senate elected Richard Ravalomanana (TGV), a newly appointed Senator, as the new Senate President. Until his September appointment to the Senate, Richard Ravalomanana — not to be confused with former President and current opposition candidate Marc Ravalomanana — was a retired general serving as a close aide to Rajoelina, even being described as “Rajoelina’s right-hand man” in 2021. Razafimahefa’s legal challenge to his removal was dismissed by the High Constitutional Court on 28 October and to further the confusion, the apex court immediately replaced the collegial government and appointed new Senate President Richard Ravalomanana as the new Acting President on that same day, a conflicting move that failed to assuage opposition concerns about bias and manipulation in favour of Rajoelina.
Countdown to Election Day
Protests have continued near-daily with churches, civil society, and the international community expressing concern about the clashes and calling for dialogue. Although Rajoelina has started campaigning and appears to have successfully placed an ally in the acting presidency, he has lost ground elsewhere as old friends — including former Senate President Razafimahefa and National Assembly President Christine Razanamahasoa (TGV) — have publicly broken with him. Many opposition candidates — organized into a collective — have vowed to continue rallies and boycott individual campaigning until their demands are met. It is clear that many in the opposition view this election as a potentially existential turning point for the nation and its democratic system while Rajoelina claims that the deteriorating situation is an artificial “crisis created from scratch” by the opposition.
As the country braces for the elections later this month, former presidents Rajoelina and Ravalomanana are not the only major candidates as former president Rajaonarimampianina is running again, and Siteny Randrianasoloniaiko (PSD, *) — a Russia-friendly former judoka who broke with other opposition candidates and began campaigning — also appears to have a solid support base. Against the backdrop of widespread protests and a deeply polarized society, the fate of Madagascar’s democracy hangs in the balance as demonstrations continue and the election nears.