ANTANANARIVO The people of Madagascar vote on Friday in a presidential election they hope will end a five-year crisis and rebuild investor confidence to mend an economy crippled since President Andry Rajoelina seized power in a 2009 coup.
It is the first vote on the huge, nickel- and vanilla-producing island off Africa since the upheaval four years ago triggered by mutinous soldiers that drew sanctions against Madagascar and prompted donors to freeze crucial budget support.
Rajoelina, a former disc jockey, and the wife of the man he ousted, Marc Ravalomanana, were barred by an electoral court from competing. With no clear favorite among the 33 candidates, the election is not expected to produce an outright winner, meaning a likely run-off in December.
Polling stations open at 6 a.m. (0300 GMT).
Presidential hopefuls have crisscrossed the Indian Ocean isle famed for its exotic wildlife and threatened rainforests, making lofty promises of free primary education, better management of mineral resources and a crackdown on corruption.
"People have waited a long time for this election. Finally, a chance for change," said 42-year-old Volana Ravaoarisoa, who lost her job in a textiles factory after the United States suspended Madagascar from a trade pact after the coup.
Many Malagasy are, however, less optimistic and fear the result will be disputed. That would risk prolonging uncertainty and more turmoil on the world's fourth largest island, situated in the Indian Ocean off southeastern Africa, as it struggles to lure back foreign investors, tourists and donors.
Madagascar's cash-strapped economy needed budget support back, its finance minister told Reuters.
Rajoelina, 39, 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 keeping a watchful eye on the military, still headed by a general who backed Ravalomanana's ouster and whose commanders are seen as loyal to Rajoelina.
"The Malagasy want a president ... who is not hungry for power. The people deserve a better future," Rajoelina said late on Thursday in a pre-recorded address to the nation.
The bitter rivalry between Rajoelina and Ravalomanana persists. Both men 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 fled to South Africa and remains there, has openly backed Jean Louis Robinson, a former minister during his presidency and regarded as a serious contender.
Publicly, Rajoelina has not endorsed a candidate. However, two aspirants, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, a former finance minister, and Edgard Razafindravahy are both widely seen as close political associates of the outgoing president.
One Western diplomat said flaws in the voting process were inevitable but that the alternative was another delay. Rajoelina first promised an election in late 2010.
"Everybody knows the vote cannot be perfect but everybody is playing the game," said Lydie Boka of French risk group StrategiCo. "Given the circumstances, maybe that is the best they can do."
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)