ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar – Twenty months after Madagascar's president was ousted in a coup by a former disc jockey, voters decided Wednesday whether to accept or reject a new constitution that calls for keeping Andry Rajoelina in power indefinitely.
The capital was calm Wednesday morning after minor disturbances overnight, including a fire set at the offices of a party close to Rajoelina. No one was injured. A holiday was called so people could vote Wednesday.
Rajoelina's opponents planned a protest at midday in defiance of a ban on demonstrations. The parties of ousted President Marc Ravalomanana and of former presidents Didier Ratsiraka and Albert Zafy have called for a boycott of the constitutional referendum.
The proposed charter states that the current leader of a so-called High Transitional Authority — Rajoelina — would remain in power until a new president is elected. Writer and legal expert Johary Ravaloson noted that Rajoelina has set no date for stepping down, nor has he spelled out conditions for holding an election.
"This test of the people's will is not a priority for the country," said Lalatiana Ravolomanana, a Zafy aide. "And it will not help Madagascar escape its political crisis nor this regime gain international recognition."
This island nation of 20 million off the coast of southestern Africa has been at a political impasse, with violence occasionally flaring up, since Rajoelina's military-backed and widely denounced takeover in March 2009 sent Ravalomanana into exile in South Africa. Rajoelina has refused to allow Ravalomanana to return.
In August, a court established by Rajoelina convicted Ravalomanana in absentia of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced him to life in prison in a case related to the turmoil of the coup that toppled him.
Rajoelina accuses Ravalomanana, a wealthy businessman, of misuse of office and of being blind to poverty on the island nation famous for lemurs and other wildlife found nowhere else in the world. Ravalomanana says Rajoelina, a disc jockey turned entrepreneur, is a populist and rabble-rouser with little genuine interest in democracy.
The referendum is being held despite efforts by leaders of other countries in the region to negotiate a solution with the president ousted in 2009 and others. The impasse has meant hardship for the impoverished island. Western countries have frozen all but humanitarian and emergency aid.
The first results of the referendum are expected late Wednesday but final results may take up to 10 days.
Since independence from France in 1960, Madagascar has struggled to establish stability and democracy. Street protests toppled the first president two months into his second term, and the army has been deeply involved in politics.
Ecotourism, vanilla production and the recent discovery of oil have failed to lift the majority of Madagascar's population from poverty.
Ravalomanana went from peddling yogurt from a bicycle to running a multimillion dollar food and broadcasting empire but Rajoelina was able to portray him as interested primarily in enriching himself. Rajoelina himself owns radio and TV stations and is from the wealthy elite that has long dominated politics here.