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Deadly power struggle lays Madagascar low

Burning car in Antananarivo

By Jonny Hogg
Former BBC Madagascar correspondent

Madagascar's opposition, which had seemed to be running out of steam, is likely to be given fresh impetus by the shooting dead of 28 of its supporters on Saturday.

The government now has blood on its hands.

Such bloodshed is not unheard of in Madagascar but it is rare.

People had hoped that the political crisis in 2002 which brought Marc Ravalomanana to office represented the last rites of the bad old days. Stability and growth would follow.

That will seem a fairytale in the wake of these killings.

'Red zone'

The presidential palace, a beautiful French colonial building perched on a hillside in the very centre of Madagascar's capital Antananarivo, has always been heavily protected.

Each morning when you walk past it you must remember to cross to the far side of the road, or be tersely redirected by the security forces who stand outside.

Wounded man being carried after Saturday's unrest
Madagascar is not used to such violence

Everyone knows it is what the Malagasy call a "red zone" - forbidden.

It was always likely to be highly provocative for supporters of opposition leader Andry Rajoelina to try to take the palace.

It is a potent symbol of President Marc Ravalomanana's power.

But these tragic shootings have already claimed their first political casualty.

Defence Minister Cecile Manorohanta has resigned, saying she wants no part of a government that kills civilians.

The path to a solution looks tortuous.

Dwindling numbers at Mr Rajoelina's rallies and a lack of support from the international community should perhaps have ended his hopes of setting up and leading a transitional government.

He seemed to have overplayed his hand, pushing for too much power too quickly in the face of what is, after all, a democratically elected government.

Harmful

The tragedies of recent weeks could have acted as a wake-up call for the president, who has become increasingly isolated from his people.

Now though, public support for him is likely to shrink still further without there being any practical alternative to replace him.

Andry Rajoelina at a rally in Antananarivo, 2 Feb

The damage to Madagascar's international reputation could be equally harmful.

Under President Ravalomanana the country had been taking its first tentative steps into the global market after decades of socialist stagnation.

Multinational corporations including Rio Tinto and Exxon Mobil have arrived, pouring millions of dollars into government coffers.

The president himself has seen his own business interests - anything from dairy products to cooking oil - rise and rise.

However, in appealing to foreign investors the government alienated many Malagasy people.

Food and fuel have become more expensive whilst the foreign funds have not improved the quality of life for most people.

President Ravalomanana's reputation in the eyes of his critics has not been helped by his aggressive business approach and the fact that as his wealth continued to grow, the population was becoming poorer.

Proud

The final straw for many was the mooted plan to lease one million acres in the south of the country to the Korean firm Daewoo for intensive farming.

Malagasy people have deep ties with their land and this was seen by many as a betrayal by their president.

Now, with its fledgling reputation as a stable investment prospect in tatters and a population that feels both poor and disenfranchised, the country's future looks gloomy once again.

If Madagascar is not to spiral further out of control it will take the two men at the centre of this increasingly bloody stand-off to talk.

Both are proud.

President Ravalomanana is not renowned for his largesse when dealing with opponents.

It is likely that Mr Rajoelina's popularity is all that has saved him from arrest.

Furthermore there is speculation that he is being supported by political heavyweights from the country's past - groups keen to topple the current government but lacking the charisma or popular appeal to do it.

Unless a compromise can be reached the bloodshed could continue.

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