Vote count begins as Madagascar chooses president

ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) - Madagascar voted on Wednesday for a president to tackle unemployment, poverty and corruption on the Indian Ocean island, with the incumbent and two former heads of state leading a field of 36 contenders.

Early results are expected from Thursday, but with so many standing, few expect an outright winner when preliminary and then official results are announced later in the month.

President Hery Rajaonarimampianina is seeking a second term in office and his two main challengers are former heads of state: Marc Ravalomanana and Andry Rajoelina.

If the vote needs to go to a second round, it will involve only the two top candidates and take place on Dec. 19.

The head of the European Union’s observer mission, Cristian Preda, said his team deployed across the country had not yet detected any anomalies in the polls, which he said were key for the restoration of Madagascar’s democratic credentials.

Observers are hoping for the second peaceful election since the upheaval of 2009, when Ravalomanana was forced out of office by protests led by Rajoelina in what international organizations such as the African Union said was a coup.

Those events prompted an exodus of foreign investors from a country that is one of the world’s poorest despite reserves of nickel, cobalt, gold, uranium and other minerals.

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Defense Minister Beni Xavier Rasolofonirina said 10,000 security personnel had been deployed across the country to bolster security. Nearly 10 million people are registered to voter in the country of 25 million people.

Voter Sahondramalala Nirisoa, a nurse in the capital, told Reuters: “I hope and I pray for change.”

Another voter, Erick Ralaiarimanana, 40, an information technology worker in the capital, said he hoped the next president would work for “the good of the Malagasy people”.

Polls closed at 5 p.m. (1400 GMT) and electoral officials in three polling stations in the capital said the turnout had been around 54 percent.

Each of the three main candidates has pledged to accelerate recovery for an economy the International Monetary Fund forecasts will grow at more than 5 percent this year, its highest rate in a decade.

Since a peaceful election in 2013, investors and donor governments have started to reengage following a four-year freeze that began after Rajoelina came to power.

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But the island was hit by a fresh political crisis in April, sparked by a legal amendment by Rajaonarimampianina’s government that would have prevented Ravalomanana from standing for office. Rajaonarimampianina later removed that provision.

Civil society groups accuse the three wealthy frontrunners of enriching themselves in office, something each denies.

Ravalomanana said he was “delighted” with the way voting was unfolding. “This election is a turning point for the country,” Ravalomanana said after voting in the capital Antananarivo.

The election commission is expected to announce a preliminary result by Nov. 20. The High Constitutional court is expected to issue the final result by Nov. 29.

Writing by Duncan Miriri and Elias Biryabarema; Editing by Alison Williams