ANTANANARIVO The wife of deposed Madagascar leader Marc Ravalomanana deflected international demands to pull out of a presidential election in August, telling Reuters she will be her own woman if she wins while her husband will run the family business.
Lalao Ravalomanana's decision to run upset a deal under which leading players in a 2009 coup agreed not to contest the vote that aims to restore constitutional order after more than four years of political crisis and economic decline.
In an interview, she said she could not ignore the clamor from her husband's supporters to seek power and end food shortages on an island that is rich in minerals.
"This call came from God," said Ravalomanana, a Protestant Christian, playing down suggestions that she would be a front for her exiled husband who would exercise the real power.
"I am my own person. I will be the president. It will be his turn to run the company," said Lalao, who managed the family business empire when her husband was president. "It would be impossible for a married couple to run a country together."
Madagascar slid into turmoil that scared off investors and hurt the vital tourism industry after disc jockey-turned-politician Andry Rajoelina seized power from Marc Ravalomanana with military support. Foreign donors froze budget support and the Indian Ocean island is suspended from the African Union.
Succumbing to regional pressure, both men agreed in January not to contest the election. However, the current president Rajoelina accused Lalao of breaking this deal and rejoined the presidential race when she put herself forward in April after returning from self-imposed exile in South Africa. She had told the authorities she was visiting her sick mother.
"When I arrived at the airport I was surprised by the daily hardships. Life has got worse. I saw kids not going to school. And those who did were unable to afford any materials," she said in her first interview since returning, conducted on Thursday.
"My aim as a woman is to give the Malagasy people the spiritual food they need," she said. "Since we are made of flesh, we must also talk of food for the body," she added, while offering little by way of policies to help economic recovery.
Convicted in absentia for ordering his presidential guard to gun down anti-government protesters during demonstrations in early 2009, Marc Ravalomanana has been blocked by the Malagasy authorities from returning to the country.
France, Madagascar's former colonial ruler, joined the African Union this week in saying it would not recognize the vote if Rajoelina, Lalao Ravalomanana and another ex president, Didier Ratsiraka, took part.
But she dismissed the idea that donors would continue to withhold aid, a stance that has forced big public spending cuts and a deterioration in social indicators that show 77 percent of households living in poverty.
"As soon as the foreigners see that there is peace, security, that we are making a difference, they will come back," the 60-year-old said. "Their hearts are not made of stone."
The economy has still not recovered from the turmoil that followed Marc Ravalomanana's removal. The World Bank forecasts it will grow just 2.6 percent in 2013, well below the 7.1 percent achieved before the crisis in 2008.
Lalao said she would lure foreign investors back but gave no details. Her husband opened the doors to multi-nationals to exploit Madagascar's deposits of oil, gold, cobalt, nickel, chrome, uranium and ilmenite, a titanium ore.
Under his watch, foreign direct investment (FDI) leapt from $85 million in 2005 to $1.2 billion in 2008, due largely to two mining projects involving Canada's Sherritt International and a subsidiary of London- and Australian-listed Rio Tinto.
However FDI slumped 30 percent to $860 million in 2010 and remained below pre-crisis levels in 2011.
Pressed on her economic experience, Lalao said she had run the family's sprawling business empire until she and her husband fled the island. "When you know how to work with the people, to share with them the fruits of growth, I know that there will be justice in this country," she said
That may grate with the family's opponents, who accuse Marc Ravalomanana of using his presidency to further his private interests and become one of the wealthiest of Madagascar's 20 million people.
Ravalomanana built up his fortune in a rags-to-riches-tale, selling yoghurt off the back of a bicycle in the capital Antananarivo in his early 20s before he secured a World Bank loan to set up his own factory.