ANTANANARIVO The people of Madagascar voted on Friday in a presidential election they hope will end a political crisis and prompt investors and donors to return to the Indian Ocean island, four years after a coup sent its economy reeling.
Street protests backed by mutinous troops propelled former disc jockey Andry Rajoelina, 39, to power in 2009 in the country of 22 million people, famed for its exotic wildlife and eyed by foreign firms for its oil, nickel, cobalt and gold.
Since then, donors such as the European Union, International Monetary Fund and World Bank have frozen funds, economic growth has slumped and poverty has worsened.
Madagascar has struggled to lure back tourists and court oil and mining giants. Nine out of 10 people live on less than $2 a day.
"We need to end this crisis. As far as I am concerned, this election is our last chance," said laboratory worker Faly Randrianarivo. The next president, he said, needed to create jobs, fight corruption and ensure free primary education.
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.
Voting in Antananarivo, capital of the former French colony, was calm and orderly. A local chief was killed in a polling station in the south of the island, but Interior Ministry sources said the attack was linked to cattle rustling.
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. Voting was due to end at 5 p.m. (1400 GMT) but the growing queues of voters raised questions over a possible extension.
Rajoelina was barred by an electoral court from running for president. So too is the wife of the man he ousted, Marc Ravalomanana. With no clear favorite among the 33 candidates, the election is not expected to produce an outright winner, meaning a likely runoff in December.
Results will first be collected in the provinces before being relayed electronically to the electoral commission in the capital. The ballot papers will then be transported to the capital in case of challenges. The commission has until November 8 to announce a provisional result.
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 mineral resources and a crackdown on corruption.
Many Malagasy, however, fear the result will be disputed, bringing further turmoil and keeping investors at bay. That would deprive the country for even longer of much-needed foreign currency.
The turmoil has seen foreign direct investment into Madagascar slump to a projected $0.46 billion this year from $1.36 billion in 2009, when the mining sector accounted for most inflows, World Bank data shows.
Rajoelina urged candidates to accept the vote's outcome.
"We will take all necessary precautions to avoid anyone causing trouble," the outgoing president 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 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 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. But two aspirants, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, a former finance minister, and Edgard Razafindravahy, are both widely seen as close political associates of the outgoing president.
Other candidates include several former ministers, the nephew of former President Didier Ratsiraka and an artist.
(Editing by George Obulutsa and Mark Trevelyan)