Antananarivo, Madagascar, Dec 19 – Madagascar voted on Wednesday in a two-man contest between former presidents who have waited years to come face-to-face in a fiercely personal battle for power in the Indian Ocean island.
The clash between Andry Rajoelina and Marc Ravalomanana could spark fresh instability in the impoverished country if the result is rejected by the losing candidate or fraud allegations are widespread, analysts warn.
The contenders came a close first and second in November’s first-round election.
Rajoelina and Ravalomanana were both banned from running in the 2013 ballot as part of an agreement to end recurring crises that have rocked Madagascar since independence from France in 1960.
“I am confident,” Rajoelina said after voting in the capital Antananarivo. “I think that the Madagascan people will decide once and for all who will lead the country… I call for people to vote in massive numbers.”
As Ravalomanana left a polling station in the city, he said: “With the participation of all Madagascans, I hope we will change Madagascar and we will move forward.”
In the first round, Rajoelina won 39 percent compared with 35 percent for Ravalomanana. Both camps alleged they were victims of fraud and cheating.
The polls closed on Wednesday evening. The election count could be tense with the first significant results due only by next week.
The EU observer mission called for candidates and their supporters to wait patiently for the official results.
“It is not by mobilising in the street that they will win, so I ask them resolutely that they refrain from any gesture that could taint the smooth running of the election,” mission chief Cristian Preda said Wednesday.
– Bitter history –
Ravalomanana, 69, was first elected as president in 2002 but was forced to resign seven years later by violent demonstrations supported by Rajoelina, the then mayor of the capital Antananarivo. Rajoelina, 44, was installed by the army and ruled until 2014.
About 45 percent of the 10 million registered voters abstained in the first round.
The two contenders criss-crossed the country via helicopter to secure votes.
Both candidates have spent lavishly, with promises and handouts distributed liberally to voters who are among the poorest in Africa.
With the personalities of the two men dominating the election, issues such as poverty, corruption and lack of basic services and infrastructure have been largely pushed to one side.
Some analysts warn a fractious election fall-out could damage the chances of future development.
“The results could be very tight and, in this context, even small irregularities could lead one or the other candidate to contest them,” said Marcus Schneider, an analyst at the Bonn-based Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
– High stakes –
Former education minister Paul Rabary, a fringe candidate who was eliminated in the first round, said the stakes were high.
“For Marc Ravalomanana, his business network cannot survive if he does not take power. For Rajoelina, his personal history is sullied by the (2009) coup, so he must win to rescue his honour.”
Ravalomanana is a former milkman from a peasant family who went on to build a business empire, while Rajoelina is a former party planner and successful entrepreneur with slick communication skills.
Outgoing president Hery Rajaonarimampianina was eliminated in the first round after collecting less than nine percent of the vote.
His attempts to change the electoral laws this year backfired, sparking nearly three months of sometimes violent protests in Antananarivo.
The demonstrators forced Rajaonarimampianina to accept a “consensus” government tasked with organising the election.
Madagascar is well known for its vanilla and precious redwood, yet is one of the world’s poorest nations, according to World Bank data, with 76 percent of people living in extreme poverty.
The island, which is also famed for its unique wildlife, is dependent on foreign aid and burdened by a long history of coups and unrest.
“My choice is already made, but I keep it to myself,” 45-year-old housewife Monique Norosoa told AFP as she voted in the capital.