Malagasy politics are often overlooked by the international civil society, despite its long history of tumultuous instability. Yet, the Madagascan political atmosphere offers valuable insights into how the excessive concentration of the monopoly of power into the hands of one man only, thus President Andry Rajoelina, can lead to the erosion of the democratic institutions and the very processes processes that he is meant to protect.
Setting the scene: the 2009 coup d’état
It is an oxymoron to admit that Madagascar, despite being the world’s four largest island and one of the richest in natural resources, also ranks as one of the world’s poorest countries. This juxtaposition is the result of a significant political crisis, an instability that started with the country’s very foundation in 1960. Truth is, in the past years, the political crisis in Madagascar has been largely neglected by the international community – as if almost forgotten. The attention of the international media has been turned towards the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or the Israel-Hamas conflict, or even towards larger regional actors such as the crisis in the Sahel. Yet, as the November 2023 Presidential election approached, it grew clearer that the erosion of democratic institutions in Madagascar can offer valuable lessons into the study of democratic backsliding: it is a reflection of both fragile structural mechanisms, given the tumultuous history of the country, as well as agent-based factors, considering Rajoelina’s increasingly tight grip of power.
Setting the scene: the 2009 coup d’état
As earlier stated, the Madagascan political atmosphere has always been turbolent since the declaration of independence from France in 1960. Malagasy political history is marked by periods of political crisis, where the upholding democratic institutions was consistently overridden. Although elections are scheduled, leaders have had a tendency to come to power in undemocratic manners, thus through coups. This is exactly the tool that has been used by the current Malagasy president, Andry Rajoelina, when he came to power in 2009. Founder of the political party Young Malagasies Determined, hebecame the primary opposition figure of Ravalomanana, who acted as President of Madagascar between 2002-2009. In 2008, Rajoelina was, at the time, mayor of Antananarivo; he called for Ravalomanana to step down, accusing him of corruption and emblezzing government funds, as well as governing Madagascar in an authoritarian manner. Tensions between Ravalomanana and Rajoelina came to increase greatly in 2009, after dozens of protesters were killed by the violent governmental responses during a demonstration against Ravalomanana and his allegedly corrupt administration. The power struggle between the two politicians would soon intensify when the Chief of the army was removed by junior officers in opposition to Ravalomanana’s administration. What followed was the seizure of the presidential palace and the central bank by the hands of the military, which forced Ravalomanana to stepdown and resign. Rajoelina declared himself president, but promised to draft a new constitution and hold elections within two years. The military’s unconstitutional transfer of power to Rajoelina was widely condemned as a coup by the international community, and Madagascar was suspended from both the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). This led to the suspension of financial aid to Madagascar, increasingly isolating the country. This strong response of the international community exacerbated already existing economic inequalities within the country. Rajoelina’s administration has now been in charge intermittently since 2009, with a short break between 2014 and 2019. This military coup d’ètat falls into a pattern in Malagasy history, and it marks a tradition of authoritarianism and lack of respect for democracy within the country’s politics.
Rajoelina’s democratic facade
After a 4 year “break” from the Presidential post, Rajoelina reached power once again in 2019. This election has been heavily criticised by the EU Election Observation Mission, who strongly urged to improve the preparation and organisation of the election. Yet, this was poorly implemented, thus leading to a clear case of election manipulation. This was followed by a four year democratic facade, giving the impression that Rajoelina’s administration was stable throughout this term. However, as the owner of Malagasy TV channels, Rajoelina held a tight grip on national media. Furthermore, his close-knitted relationship to security apparatuses, such as the police and the army, discouraged the opposition to take to the street due to the often violent response by the hands of the government. This consistently reassures his administration. Furthermore, in recent years, economic inequality has been on the rise in Madagascar. Although the country is the main exporter of vanilla, the world’s second most expensive spice, the economic benefits have not been distributed equally amongst the Malagasy population. Due to failed government policymaking in terms of distribution, and allegations of corruption, Madagascar has struggled with economic growth. The administration’s low government spending on health and education and increased environmental degradation, led to the overall trust in government to decrease greatly. It is clear that institutions are biassed towards the incumbent, and power (from the media, to the army and the judiciary) is concentrated in the hands of one man only – Rajoelina. A facade of democracy is upheld, primarily thanks to the scheduling of elections and the fact that he stepped down in 2014 as part of a negotiated post-coup transition before running in 2019. Nevertheless, Madagascar is, in reality, suffering from democratic erosion and there were no real instruments to work towards a free and fair democratic election in November 2023.
And the opposition?
These socio economic grievances should allow for the political opposition to thrive. In fact, protests have been greatly increasing in Madagascar in light of the November 2023 elections. There are strong sentiments of structural disadvantages in electoral processes that are democratic only at surface level. Beyond this democratic facade, lays the abuse of the constitution, the manipulation of the electoral roll, millions of false votes, the targeting of government dissidents, the clear instrumentalisation of institutions, the harassment against political activities of the opposition, and the acquisition of a €14 million predator software for espionage operations against the opposition. For the first time, its leaders placed themselves in the front row of demonstrations, and also in the line of fire of the police. Nevertheless, the opposition boycotted the November elections, which led to them being expected to come down to a duel between Rajoelina and Randrianasoloniaiko, the leader of the Social Democratic Party. Yet, he has been suspected of acting as Rajoelina’s front man to create the facade of democratic processes. It must be admitted that the opposition was slow to mobilise against the unfair conditions of this past presidential election. The active promotion of democracy was required earlier, and on larger scale and force, alongside increased accountability for the Rajoelina administration. Instead, the country’s passive approach to democracy has permitted the monopoly of power to be concentrated in the hands of one man only, while the international community, distracted by other world and regional events, is overlooking this backsliding.
Rajoelina has reached power through undemocratic means and has since ruled in an undemocratic manner. His monopoly over the media and security apparatuses has permitted him to act as an individual player, systematically targeting the opposition and violently silencing dissidents. The scheduling of elections and the presence of opposition parties allows him to upkeep the facade of democracy, when in reality, those very same elections are manipulated and the opposition leader is a Rajoelina’s right hand man. Yet, the political mood for change has gained momentum too timidly to influence the process, and his administration will continue into 2024.