- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

ANTANANARIVO, MADAGASCAR (AP) - If outsiders think of Madagascar at all, it’s for the island’s unique plants and animals, or two DreamWorks cartoons recently made about them.

The politics of this impoverished nation off southeastern Africa also can seem exotic or like something out of Hollywood: This week a former disc jockey backed by the army toppled a dairy magnate to take power.

Since independence from France in 1960, Madagascar has struggled to establish stability and democracy. Street protests toppled the first president two months into his second term, and the army has been deeply involved in politics.

“Will we never have democratic change?” said Antananarivo resident Mirana Razanaparany. “Why does it always have to come from the streets?”

For months, Andry Rajoelina, a 34-year-old former disc jockey with a gift for articulating the grievances of the poor majority, led rallies pressing Marc Ravalomanana, 59, to step down as president so he could replace him.

Tensions had been rising since late January, when the government blocked the signal of a radio station Rajoelina owned. In response, Rajoelina supporters set fire to a building in the government broadcasting complex as well as an oil depot, a shopping mall and a private TV station linked to Ravalomanana. Scores of people were killed.

Days later, soldiers opened fire on anti-government protesters, killing at least 25. The incident cost Ravalomanana much of the support of the military, which blamed him for the order to fire at demonstrators. Without a united military behind him, it was only a matter of time before Ravalomanana was toppled.

On Tuesday, Ravalomanana announced he was handing power to the military. Hours later, the military pronounced Rajoelina president. Madagascar’s highest court on Wednesday endorsed the army’s move, even though Rajoelina is six years too young to serve as president under the country’s constitution.

The majority of Madagascar’s population lives in misery, with ecotourism, vanilla production and even the recent discovery of oil still not enough to spur poverty-busting growth.

The Peace Corps has suspended its programs in Madagascar and was evacuating its volunteers amid the unrest. It also has scared off tourists who once paid dearly to see Madagascar’s rare lemur primates and baobab trees _ just when the two DreamWorks animated features about animals from the island were spurring interest.

Ravalomanana’s rags-to-riches tale _ he went from peddling yogurt from a bicycle to running a multimillion dollar food and broadcasting empire _ was once a source of popularity. But Rajoelina was able to portray Ravalomanana as interested primarily in further enriching himself and increasingly out of touch with the suffering of ordinary people.

Rajoelina himself owns radio and TV stations and is from the wealthy elite that has long dominated politics in Madagascar. Many believe he is linked to _ and may be acting on behalf _ of Didier Ratsiraka, one of the country’s longest serving leaders and one of Ravalomanana’s most bitter rivals.

Ratsiraka took over from military rulers in 1975 and led the country for the next 16 years, presiding over a socialist and highly centralized state and clamping down on the opposition.

As the economy deteriorated and the opposition pushed for political space, Ratsiraka was forced to adopt reforms. Like Ravalomanana recently, he lost key support when troops fired on demonstrators in 1991, killing dozens. Ratsiraka lost a 1992 vote, only to emerge again to win in 1997.

The next election in 2001 pitted Ratsiraka against Ravalomanana. The results were disputed and low-level fighting split the country between two governments, two capitals and two presidents. Ratsiraka fled to France in June 2002.

When Ratsiraka was interviewed from France on Rajoelina’s TV station late last year, Ravalomanana shut down the station.

Rajoelina is affectionately known as Andry TGV. The initials of his party in the local Malagasy language bring to mind the French high-speed train, an image that fits a youthful, energetic personality many admire.

On Tuesday, he paraded triumphantly through the capital surrounded by armed soldiers and an adoring crowd.

The international community, dismayed at the toppling of a democratically elected leader, however flawed and unpopular, will be watching to see that Rajoelina keeps his pledge of holding elections in two years.

The African Union was examining whether what had taken place was a coup, which would lead to Madagascar’s automatic suspension from the continentwide body. France, Madagascar’s former colonial power and current main donor, said Tuesday that two years was “too long” to wait for elections.

Regional power South Africa expressed concern on behalf of the Southern African Development Community at “unconstitutional attempts undertaken by the opposition that led to the resignation of the democratically elected president of a SADC member country.”

The people of Madagascar, meanwhile, will be watching to see whether Rajoelina keeps his populist promises of putting their welfare first.

Already there is concern he is not up to the job of governing and that his power grab has isolated a country in need of help from its neighbors.

“I’m not sure it’s really over,” Emeline Raharinandrasana, a retired office worker in the capital, said Tuesday. “Is this new authority legal? If not, will the international community continue to help us? That worries me the most.”

___

Associated Press writers Anita Powell in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Donna Bryson in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

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