The economy of Madagascar is slowly grinding to a halt as the political standoff between two presidential candidates continues into its fourth month

As Madagascar's two "presidents" battle it out to see who blinks first, the country's economy is quickly being strangled.

For nearly two months government supporters and soldiers have blockaded the only road between the port of Toamasina and Antananarivo, the nation's capital and stronghold of opposition leader and self-proclaimed president Marc Ravalomanana.  

The country has, for the past few months, had rival presidents, governments and capitals.

Normally 1,450 tons of cargo passes through the Toamasina port a month, most of it headed to Antananarivo. A refinery located at the coast also supplies almost all of the country's fuel.

Much of the food production is done around the capital and this, too, cannot reach the people living along the road to Toamasina.

Currently, traffic to the capital cannot go further than the village of Brickaville, a 90-minute drive south of Toamasina, where the bridge spanning a 30m-wide gully has been partially dismantled and blocked off with barbed wire and an empty cargo container.

The blockade is guarded by a contingent of paratroopers, loyal to incumbent President Didier Ratsiraka, who has ordered the capital be cut off until Ravalomanana renounces his claim to the presidency.

The dispute began after official results from a flawed December 16 election showed no candidate had won more than half the vote, forcing a runoff between Ratsiraka and Ravalomanana.

Ravalomanana said the election was rigged, and declared himself the out­right winner. He claimed to have won 52 percent of the vote - more than 50 percent obviates the need for a runoff-but the official tally was 46 percent. No
international observers were present at the elections.

Ravalomanana had himself sworn in as president and named alternative ministers, who were installed in government buildings by supporters.

Ratsiraka and his party moved their headquarters to the coastal city, his constituency, and has continued to insist that he remains the incumbent president. Shortly before the elections, he elected a new Senate, appointed new High Court judges and appointed six new provincial governors who now support his claim.

Ravalomanana is the former mayor of Antananarivo who was hailed for his work in developing the city's infrastructure. "In one year he changed the whole city," said a Malagasy official who did not want to be named

A successful businessman with no political constituency, Ravalomanana is said to be very outward looking in terms of trade and foreign policy, corn pared to the inward, conservative stance of Ratsiraka who has been reluc­tant to become part of the Southern African Development Community.

Ratsiraka served as the country's military ruler for 17 years before being elected in 1996.

Madagascar has had a positive growth rate for several years, including growth of 6.5 percent last year. It has moved quickly to capitalise on the African Growth and Opportunity Act and has attracted a number of big Mauritian textile companies to the island.

Around 80 percent of all income comes from the capital and the majority of the population lives there.

However, the current impasse has the potential to undo all the economic gains of the past year or two.

The assault on the economy has not only come from the government. On January 28, the opposition called a crippling general strike aimed at forcing Ratsiraka to resign. The strike was eventually abandoned.

The blockade has made raw materials ,carce and exports impossible. As a
result many businesses in the capital have closed or are on the verge of bankruptcy. About 20,000 jobs in this impoverished country have been lost and a further 80,000 are threatened.

A shortage of fuel has brought a lot of the remaining economy activity to a standstill. In addition, the central bank, closed for the election and has yet to open because of subsequent events, thus paralysing the banking system.

Ratsiraka, who has kept his own counsel through much of the dispute, recently broke his long-held silence and rejected flatly an opposition demand that he step down.

"I don't want my name to be soiled," he said in an interview with Radio France Internationale. "I don't want people to say that Ratsiraka is a deserter, that he is the one who allowed a horde of neo-fascists and nazis, as they are often called, to vassalise our children and children's children".

His speech followed clashes in the central city of Fianarantsoa, in which several of Ravalomanana's supporters were killed by forces loyal to Ratsiraka - a new development in a battle fought mostly on the economic front so far.

Ratsiraka, who described himself as a national saviour, spoke of the dangers of ethnic strife in Madagascar and accused Ravalomanana and his supporters of pushing the country into civil war.

Concern about a possible civil war along ethnic lines has also been expressed by Abdoulaye Bathily, a
former Senegalese government minister and member of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Contact Group for Madagascar. There are some 18 major ethnic groups in Madagascar, including   Malayo-Indonesian, African, Arab, French, Indian, Creole and Comoran.

Bathily commended the army for having stayed "largely" neutral, but conceded the OAU's mediation had failed and blamed both Ratsrika and Ravalomanana for the current quandary.

Ravalomanana's efforts to extend his support base beyond his stronghold of Antanananarivo have not proved to be very successful. Ratsiraka's supporters have erected roadblocks in various provinces, but especially around the capital, to starve it of fuel and other vital supplies. Ravalomanana's Prime Minister, Jacques Sylla, denounced those roadblocks, saying they are manned not by soldiers but by "mafiosi militias". Ratsiraka has rejected that charge, saying the roadblocks "are a lesser evil designed to ward off an ethnic conflagration and a civil war because they separate the conflicting parties."

Meanwhile, Ravalomanana's government has continued with the business of state. Syllae recently opened parliament and outlined plans to improve services, boost the economy and promote peace and stability.

The opposition government also announced a commitment to free trade and maintaining ties with France, the former colonial power.

The opening session was broadcast live on state television.

About 60 of the National Assembly's 150 members attended the session, which Ratsiraka's government declared illegal. Before the election dispute, 87 MPs backed Ratsiraka, but it is unclear how many have switched allegiance to Ravalomanana.

The World Bank estimates that the dispute is costing the poor island nation $12 million a day - a huge chunk of its gross domestic product.

International investors are already looking for other places to invest their capital, while many businesses are losing export orders.               


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