- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar | Madagascar’s opposition chief emerged from two weeks of hiding to declare himself president on Saturday, setting up another showdown with the country’s increasingly isolated leader, who defied demands to resign.

Embattled President Marc Ravalomanana prevailed the first time the two men tangled, but now his power base has disappeared against an opposition that is promising elections within two years on this island off southeastern Africa known for its wildlife and eco-tourism but also for its widespread poverty and political unrest.

On Saturday, Mr. Ravalomanana - a master of political infighting - refused to quit, even though he has lost the support of much of the military.

“I am still president,” Mr. Ravalomanana, 49, declared outside the presidential palace to a crowd of some 2,000 supporters, many wielding bars and sticks.

But in another part of the capital, opposition leader Andry Rajoelina, 34, set a deadline of just a few hours for Mr. Ravalomanana to dissolve the government and give up the leadership of this poor Indian Ocean island of 20 million people. The opposition also moved without resistance into the empty offices of the less powerful prime minister and named someone to replace him.

More than 100 people have been killed since demonstrations erupted in Madagascar in January.

On Thursday, the opposition proclaimed its own commander in chief of the armed forces without any resistance, and said the next day that it had gained control of tanks, prompting the president to go on national radio to warn against any assassination attempts.

“There is only one solution. The resignation of Marc Ravalomanana,” Mr. Rajoelina told a crowd of about 10,000 jubilant demonstrators on Saturday in his first public appearance since he went into hiding at the French Embassy two weeks ago fearing arrest.

It is the second time Mr. Rajoelina, a former disc jockey who became mayor of the capital, has declared himself president. The first time, Mr. Ravalomanana prevailed, as he also had in a struggle with a rival in 2001 that left the island divided with two presidents, two governments and two capitals for six months.

Mr. Rajoelina accuses Mr. Ravalomanana, a wealthy businessman, of misuse of funds, abuse of power and turning a blind eye to the plight of citizens. But critics say the young opposition leader is a rabble rouser with little interest in good governance.

Mr. Ravalomanana issued a statement saying that the opposition did not have “the power bestowed by democratic elections.” He said, “This movement is and remains a street protest which uses terror and repression to survive. A self-proclamation does not equate to legitimate power.”

Mr. Rajoelina said earlier he hoped the handover would be peaceful, seeking to ease the president’s fears that he would be assassinated.

“I have clean hands. I have no intention of killing him [Mr. Ravalomanana]. I have no intention of sending in tanks and soldiers,” Mr. Rajoelina said.

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