Page last updated at 15:38 GMT, Thursday, 18 March 2010

Is time up for Madagascar's leader, Andry Rajoelina?

By Christina Corbett
BBC News, Madagascar

A political crisis has engulfed Madagascar's leader Andry Rajoelina, who seized power a year ago. With the country's economy spiralling out of control, he now faces African Union sanctions for failing to set up a unity government.

Andry Rajoelina
Rajoelina has called a parliamentary election for 20 March 2010

The letters clinging to the side of the hill are like a giant game of Scrabble. Madagascar's answer to Hollywood's own hillside signpost.

But here, the towering white metal pieces don't spell out the name of a place where the streets are paved with gold.

The letters spell out the name of Madagascar's capital city, Antananarivo. At least they would do if they were all there.

The first A and first N are all that remain. The rest were apparently stolen by an entrepreneurial thief with a head for heights, looking to make charcoal cooking stoves with the metal.

"Times are hard now," says Michel, who sells second-hand clothes in a street at the bottom of the hill.

"People will do whatever they can to get by," he says, shaking his head as he looks up at the diminished letters on the hillside.

Tortured landscape

It has been a year since President Marc Ravalomanana was forced from power by Antananarivo's former mayor and a renegade faction of the army.

Since then, Madagascar's tortured political landscape has become yet more sinuous and bizarre. Ministries have changed hands and ministers have changed sides.

In one of the most circuitous turn of events, faded politicians from decades ago have risen to reassert themselves among Madagascar's squabbling elites.

Madagascan market stall
Nowhere is the impact of the economic downturn clearer than in Antananarivo's famous street markets

These are the dinosaurs - the tough-skinned relics of bygone eras. And they cut a sharp contrast with the new president, baby-faced 35-year-old Andry Rajoelina.

The one time nightclub disc jockey has divided opinion - even among those who once supported him.

Loyalists thank him for bringing to an end the increasingly autocratic regime of Ravalomanana. But a growing body of critics now accuses Rajoelina of being a puppet for Madagascar's former colonial power, France.

France's dislike of the anglophile Ravalomanana was no secret.

"We call him foza orana," says Alain, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel of his aged Renault 4 taxi. "It means he is like a crab - he doesn't walk forwards, he goes backwards."

And Rajoelina is taking Madagascar backwards with him, goes the argument.

Spiralling downturn

Alain and I are trapped in a stationary queue of traffic. Through the window I can see the dirty façade of the somewhat strangely named, Privilege Pharmacy.

At least I think it is strange until it dawns on me that in today's Antananarivo, the pharmacy is in fact quite appropriately named.

As a result of the crisis, the price of basic foodstuffs is rising, unemployment is rocketing, and it is a privilege to be able to afford to buy medicine.

Nowhere is the impact of Madagascar's spiralling economic downturn clearer than in Antananarivo's famous street markets.

These have swollen and exploded, as thousands of the city's recently unemployed people have turned to informal trade as a source of income.

Stalls selling everything from broken watches to plastic flowers have spilled across pavements and into roads. But the growing competition isn't helping anyone.

Soloniaina tells me that she used to earn around 20,000 ariary a day selling t-shirts - that's nearly £7. Now she earns around 5,000 ariary a day, less than £2.

Sharing power

Among Antananarivo's residents, conversations about the future invariably end with a shrug of the shoulders.

Former president Marc Ravalomanana
Ravalomanana says that he is willing to share power with his political opponents. But not everyone wants to see him return

In a typical exchange I ask what the solution to the crisis is. Most often the answer is that a power-sharing government be installed to organise elections as soon as possible.

But what if a power-sharing government cannot be agreed on? Can the elections that Rajoelina is now organising, without opposition support, be accepted as a way out of the crisis?

No, these will not be free and fair people say.

But if free and fair elections were held, who would you choose to be president? Silence, and that inevitable shrug of the shoulders.

From exile in an affluent Johannesburg's suburb, Ravalomanana addresses his supporters by telephone at gatherings in Antananarivo.

He says that he is willing to share power with his political opponents. But not everyone wants to see him return.

It was on his watch that international donors first suspended budgetary aid to the government in December 2008.

The reason? A lack of transparency in accounting for the way the money was used.

So now it seems like Madagascar's politicians are running out of time and options.

It's a bit like watching the last slow moves of a game of Scrabble, played with a dwindling number of letters to chose from, on a board crowded with old words.

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