ANTANANARIVO Madagascar pushed back the date of its presidential elections for the third time on Thursday, to October 25, as the Indian Ocean island struggles to end years of political crisis.
The former French colony has been in chaos since Andry Rajoelina seized power with military support in 2009, ousting former President Marc Ravalomanana after opposition protests.
Its tourism industry has suffered badly from the turmoil, and foreign companies have been wary of committing to investment in its oil, gold, chrome and nickel reserves.
Rajoelina and Ravalomanana reached a deal with regional states in January to restore order, based on the condition neither of them would stand in the election, initially planned for May.
However, Ravalomanana's wife said she would run for the presidency instead, prompting Rajoelina also to declare his bid.
The election was postponed to July when the electoral commission said it was unprepared to hold the poll. It was then pushed back to late August because the decision by Rajoelina and Ravalomanana's wife to stand led to donors suspending financing for the poll.
At the weekend, the electoral court banned Rajoelina and Ravalomanana's wife, Lalao, from standing in the poll. The court also struck former President Didier Ratsiraka from the list of candidates.
The electoral commission said on Thursday that it was pushing back the election date to October 25 so it could change the list of candidates to exclude the three.
Beatrice Atallah, president of Madagascar's electoral body, said in a statement that a possible presidential run-off as well as parliamentary elections would be held on December 20.
The court's ruling barring the three candidates was widely welcomed by Western and regional powers who say the country needs a fresh start with new candidates.
The African Union, the South African Development Community (SADC) and key donors such as France and the European Union had applied heavy pressure to try to prevent the candidacies.
Norbert Ratsirahonana, special adviser to Rajoelina, said the president would respect the court's decision to block him from the race and had also accepted the new election date.
Lalao Ravalomanana was not immediately available to comment on her exclusion from the election.
On Monday, her supporters said they would take to the streets to protest against the "illegal" court ruling barring her from running, but this has failed to materialize.
Madagascar's economy shrank 4.6 percent in 2009, the year of the coup, after growing at 7.1 percent the year before. It is forecast to expand by just 2.6 percent this year, according to the World Bank.
(Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Pravin Char)