Madagascar counts presidential election, economy at stake

ANTANANARIVO Fri Oct 25, 2013 2:06pm EDT

People line up before voting at a polling centre in the capital Antananarivo, October 25, 2013. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

People line up before voting at a polling centre in the capital Antananarivo, October 25, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

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ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) - Counting began on Friday in Madagascar's presidential election which voters hope will encourage investors and donors to return to the Indian Ocean island, four years after a coup sent its economy reeling.

Madagascar, famed for its wildlife and eyed by foreign firms for its minerals, has struggled to lure back tourists and court oil and mining giants since street protests and mutinous troops swept former disc jockey Andry Rajoelina into power in 2009. The economy has slumped and poverty has deepened.

"The vote was an opportunity to show how fed up we had become," said English teacher Lorette Rasoafara as the tallying started, adding she had voted for a new political face. "If you wanted to go back in time you voted for the old guard."

It could be more than a week before the election result is clear. There are no exit polls and while partial results were expected to trickle in overnight, the electoral commission (CENIT) has until November 8 to announce a provisional result. There were no initial indications as to how high turnout was.

EU observers said there had been some problems with voter registration and voting materials had been missing at some of the 20,000 polling stations. But there had been no signs of voter intimidation, they said.

"The conditions are there for a transparent and credible vote," said Maria Muniz de Urquiza, head of the EU mission.

Rajoelina said the people's choice should be respected.

He was barred by an electoral court from running for president, as was the wife of the man he ousted, Marc Ravalomanana. The election is not expected to produce an outright winner from among the 33 candidates, meaning a likely runoff in December.

SHORT OF CASH

Donors such as the European Union, International Monetary Fund and World Bank have frozen funds since the coup.

In an interview with Reuters, Finance Minister Lantoniaina Rasoloelison said the island would find it hard to meet its spending needs unless foreign donors resumed support within three months of a new president being elected.

Nine out of 10 people in the country of 22 million live on less than $2 a day.

Election monitors said voting was calm and orderly. A local chief was killed in a polling station in the island's south, but the attack was linked to cattle rustling gangs.

In the grounds of a secondary school in Antananarivo, capital of the former French colony, supporters of rival candidates cheered as election officials chalked up the results on blackboards and on official electoral commission documents.

Armed police kept a low profile in the capital, where some eligible voters said they had been unable to register.

"We don't understand why. It's frustrating. There are many people like me," said one woman hawking second hand clothes.

Presidential hopefuls have criss-crossed the vast island off Africa promising tax cuts, better management of the island's oil, nickel, cobalt and gold and a crackdown on corruption.

Many Malagasy, however, fear the result will be disputed, keeping investors at bay. Foreign direct investment into Madagascar has slumped to a projected $460 million this year from $1.36 billion in 2009, World Bank data shows.

Rajoelina urged candidates to accept the vote's outcome. "We will take all necessary precautions to avoid anyone causing trouble," he said after voting, without elaborating.

Rajoelina rose to power after galvanizing popular anger at Ravalomanana's perceived abuses of power. He spearheaded violent street protests in early 2009 and toppled the self-made millionaire after dissident soldiers swung behind him.

Diplomats said they were watching the response of the military, still headed by a general who backed the removal of Ravalomanana and whose commanders are seen as loyal to Rajoelina.

Rajoelina and Ravalomanana agreed with regional states not to run for the presidency in order to help restore order, but remain influential in the voting, analysts say.

Ravalomanana, who has fled to South Africa, has backed Jean Louis Robinson, a former minister during his presidency.

Publicly, Rajoelina has not endorsed a candidate. But Hery Rajaonarimampianina, a former finance minister, and Edgard Razafindravahy are widely seen as his political associates.

(Editing by George Obulutsa/Ruth Pitchford)

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