Page last updated at 12:20 GMT, Sunday, 15 March 2009

Crisis isolates Madagascar leader

Madagascan opposition supporters in Antananarivo (14/03/2009)

By Christina Corbett
BBC News, Antananarivo

Many carried heavy sticks, freshly cut from the few trees that remain of the rich forest that once surrounded Antananarivo.

Others clutched stones. They formed an unlikely presidential guard - a voluntary gathering of men and women, waiting under thick rain clouds in the evening gloom.

Large piles of red earth blocked the road, and nervous young men stopped every car, interrogating passengers but enthusiastically waving through the foreign journalists.

All were ready to defend President Marc Ravalomanana from an opposition movement that has already claimed to hold power in Madagascar.

There must be respect for democracy and for the constitution. That is sacred for me
President Marc Ravalomanana
And when Mr Ravalomanana drove down from his presidential palace to greet his supporters, brushing aside the opposition leader's four-hour ultimatum for him to step down on Saturday, the crowd was jubilant.

"I am still the president, and I will stay the president of Madagascar," Mr Ravalomanana told the BBC from the driver's seat of his black four-by-four.

He still believes that a peaceful solution to Madagascar's political crisis can be found.

"There must be national dialogue. There must be respect for democracy and for the constitution. That is sacred for me," he said.


Madagascan President Marc Ravalomanana (31/01/2009)
Mr Ravalomanana says the calls for his resignation have no democratic basis
But Madagascar's president is an increasingly isolated leader, who has been left battling a ruthless opposition movement with only a handful of loyal aides to help him.

There was no military present to protect him as his four-hour ultimatum expired - and among his aides, there is genuine fear for his life.

He is now presiding over his country from offices in a presidential residency on the outskirts of Antananarivo, increasingly detached from the government institutions that allow any president to govern effectively.

These institutions themselves are falling to the opposition's self-appointed alternative government - the Transitional High Authority.

And its leader, Andry Rajoelina, now claims his movement has assumed all power in Madagascar.

On Saturday, opposition supporters occupied the prime minister's offices, and their own man, Monja Roindefo, proudly assumed his new role as prime minister.

In a further blow to the government of Mr Ravalomanana, the leader of Madagascar's National Assembly, Jacques Sylla appeared seated next to Mr Rajoelina at Saturday's opposition rally.

Mr Sylla, himself a former prime minister, was once a close ally of Mr Ravalomanana but on Saturday he too called for the president to stand down.

But Mr Ravalomanana, who was re-elected for a second term in 2006, refuses to go.

Scarred country

Madagascan opposition leader Andry Rajoelina (14/03/2009)

Violent and protracted political upheavals are not new to Madagascar, a country that has never found political changeover straightforward.

In December 2001, Mr Ravalomanana won elections that propelled him to the presidency on the back of a groundswell of popular support.

But his rival, former President Didier Ratsiraka, refused to accept defeat, triggering eight months of civil unrest.

This plunged Madagascar's economy into disarray and split the country in two, with Mr Ratsiraka entrenched in the eastern port city of Tamatave and his rival governing from Antananarivo.

A court ruling eventually upheld Mr Ravalomanana's victory, but the country was already left deeply scared by the struggle.

There is little appetite for a return to a country divided by the mechanisms of a dysfunctional dual government. But this is a possibility.

Many people remark on a sense of history repeating itself. Although, unlike in 2001, there have been no elections this time round.

Much could depend on the country's security forces, which have distanced themselves from the president.


December 2006: Marc Ravalomanana returned as president for second term
31 January 2009: Opposition leader Andry Rajoelina says he is in charge of the country after weeks of bloody protests
3 February: Mr Rajoelina is sacked as mayor of Antananarivo
5 March: Mr Rajoelina goes into hiding
13 March: President Ravolamanana urges supporters to turn out and defend his authority
14 March: Mr Rajoelina re-emerges and gives president just hours to resign
Internal divisions are apparent, and although traditionally neutral in times of crisis, a widening mutiny in the army has caused concern that they will directly align themselves with Mr Rajoelina.

He is already claiming to command them, but the opposition movement has shown that it does not have the stomach for a violent confrontation.

Mr Ravalomanana maintains that Mr Rajoelina's movement is no more than a street protest with no real legitimacy.

But it is a street protest that has reduced the president to a lonely position of negligible power.

Yet as long as Mr Ravalomanana stays on, the opposition cannot claim victory, leaving any exit from the crisis difficult to predict.

"Mr Ravalomanana is president of the republic," one man told the BBC.

"But Mr Rajoelina is president of the 'rue' public," he added, playing on the French word for 'street'.

In other words, Mr Rajoelina may hold power on the streets of Madagascar's capital, but it is Mr Ravalomanana who continues to occupy the office of president.

His rule may be weakened, and his last line of physical defence may only be men with sticks, but Mr Ravalomanana has dug his heels in. And with no decisive action taken, this crisis may yet have a long way to go before a solution is found.

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