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Friday, 8 March, 2002, 15:01 GMT
Madagascar's great divide
Rural Madagascar
The political divide has become a geographical one
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By Alastair Leithead
BBC correspondent in Tamatave in eastern Madagascar
line

The two political heavyweights slugging it out for dominance in Madagascar have left the country hopelessly split - with the capital firmly in the hands of the opposition but cut off from the rest of the country.

Outside Antananarivo, the pivotal port of Tamatave on the east coast is seen as the heartland of incumbent President Didier Ratsiraka, but it is much more divided than that, split perhaps down the middle in its political persuasion.

People are openly Ratsiraka supporters, something you notice as being unusual after spending too long in the capital, but there's nothing like the mass demonstrations and support that self-declared President Marc Ravalomanana has there.

"When the campaigners came round before the elections, one side gave out hats, the other gave out T-shirts - it was usual to see people walking around that evening wearing both," said a diplomat working in Tamatave.

"There have been marches in the city, but very few and they have not been on a particularly large scale."

Political apathy is perhaps a better way of describing it, but even the official results of the disputed first round of elections show Mr Ravalomanana has healthy support.

Divide

The reason Tamatave is interesting is because of of its strategic position - and the fact that the five of the six provincial governors loyal to Didier Ratsiraka now recognise it as their capital city.

Crisis timeline
16 Dec - Presidential election held
7 Jan - Opposition claim rigging, begin daily protests
25 Jan - Result announced, run-off ordered
28 Jan - Opposition strike begins
22 Feb - Ravalomanana declares himself president, PM announces state of emergency
27 Feb - First violent clashes in capital
28 Feb - President imposes martial law in capital
4 March - Army lets Ravalomanana's 'ministers' take office
"It's not the new capital of Madagascar, but the governors of five of the provinces now call it their capital city in the interests of getting the country's economy back on track," said Samuel Lahady, Governor of Tamatave.

With little doubt Antananarivo, or Tana, is now under the control of Marc Ravalomanana, and his parallel government.

He's successfully turned massive people power into positive action, and has met little resistance from the military or the incumbent president and his government.

'Kitchen cabinet'

Having lost control in Tana, Didier Ratsiraka has turned to his house in Tamatave - his government ministers have been holding meetings there.

The city even has its own Central Bank, but more importantly it is the country's pivotal entry point for big business, and it's where the petrol comes from.

Samuel Lahady, Governor of Tamatave.
Tamatave's governor admits it is not the proper capital

Road blocks run by local youths - under the control of the governor - are manned for political purposes.

There are two between Tana and Tamatave - the one at Brickaville on the major river crossing, a serious blockade refusing to allow any petrol tankers through - or any trucks that might help the economy of the official capital.

There are reports of the fearsome incumbent president's special guards in plain clothes, keeping watch in case someone tries to break through.

A bridge on the narrow road was even dismantled to prohibit all traffic from passing.

Isolationism

There's been no petrol for weeks now and the booming textile industry run on a diet of imports and exports is crumbling - and with it the Malagasy economy.

Ravalomanana supporter, Antananarivo
Bloodshed has been rare so far
It's a thinly veiled policy of isolationism - cut off Tana with a blockade on the main road between there and the port, and let the city - and its new president - get on with it.

Without a supply route, the suggestion is that the place will collapse and perhaps Marc Ravalomanana will lose the support of the people. So is this set to go on for months, or can this new stalemate be broken?

It's all a matter of how involved the military becomes, and where the majority of the armed forces' allegiance lies.

Some top generals have come out in support of the young pretender, others remain loyal to the old guard - how this evens out will become clearer as the dust settles in Madagascar after the colossal changes of the past few weeks.

It seems likely there's still a long way to go before the crisis here is resolved and the country returns to a one president, one government state united behind one capital city and with the best interests of the people and the economy at heart.

See also:

05 Mar 02 | Africa
Madagascar 'rival capital' named
04 Mar 02 | Africa
Madagascar army 'switches sides'
28 Feb 02 | Africa
Martial law imposed in Madagascar
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