Madagascar heads to the polls on Wednesday in a crunch head-to-head election between two arch-rivals who have dominated political life on poverty-stricken Indian Ocean island for years.
The showdown between Marc Ravalomanana and Andry Rajoelina could revive instability in the country if a close result is rejected by the losing candidate, according to analysts.
The two contenders will compete in the run-off election after coming first and second, far ahead of their competitors, in the preliminary vote in November.
Ravalomanana and Rajoelina were both banned from running in the 2013 election as part of an agreement to end recurring crises that have rocked Madagascar since independence from France in 1960.
In the first round, Rajoelina, 44, took a slight advantage by winning 39.23% of the vote, compared with 35.35% for Ravalomanana, 69. Both camps alleged they were victims of fraud and cheating.
Ravalomanana was first elected as president in 2002 but was forced to resign seven years later by violent demonstrations supported by Rajoelina, the then mayor of the capital Antananarivo. Rajoelina was installed by the army and ruled until 2014.
Both candidates have spent lavishly on campaigning in a country that suffers dire poverty and they swept away their 34 other opponents in the first round.
Outgoing president Hery Rajaonarimampianina collected just 8.82% of the vote.
Campaigning for Wednesday’s election has been personal, with Rajoelina dismissing his rival as an old man who should “retire and go milking his cows.”
Ravalomanana has cast his rival as a “destroyer” and denounced his “provocations”.
Promises and handouts for votes
About 45% of the 10 million registered voters abstained from the first round, and the two surviving contenders have criss-crossed the country via helicopter as they pull out all the stops to secure votes on Wednesday.
Promises and handouts have been distributed liberally to voters who are among the poorest in Africa.
In the south of the country, hit by perennial food shortages, Rajoelina’s campaign activists openly distributed cheap rice and oil.
“It’s not for propaganda, it’s just to help the population,” said Serge Serge, the owner of a restaurant in Fort Dauphin that hosted the event.
“This is the realisation, ahead of time, of the promises of President Rajoelina.”
“It’s very good to do this, the prices are too expensive in the market,” said Pauline Lalao, 42, one mother jostling in line, confirming she would vote for Rajoelina as “he understands our problems.”
Ravalomanana has not been shy with promises either.
In Antananarivo on Saturday, he unveiled kit that he said he would give to all schoolchildren if he wins.
“Here are the backpacks for the children,” he told thousands of supporters. “If they all have the same uniforms, they will be able to study well… I would love your children as if they were mine”.
For one supporter of “Daddy” – Ravalomanana’s nickname – the choice is clear.
“He is the only one able to develop Madagascar,” said Laza Rabaromanana, 34.
“When he was president, he was the only one who got all the children into school… he really knows how to do everything.”
‘Stakes are enormous‘
With the personalities of the two contenders dominating the election, issues such the country’s dire poverty, corruption and lack of basic services have been pushed to one side.
And the election duel could further damage the country’s chances of development.
“The stakes are enormous, and both men have invested heavily, including financially, in this election,” said analyst Marcus Schneider of the Bonn-based Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
“If the results are tight, the loser could challenge the results and plunge the country back into crisis.”
Ravalomanana is a former milkman from a peasant family who went on to build a business empire, while the younger Rajoelina is a former mayor, party planner and successful entrepreneur with slick communication skills.
Madagascar is well known for its vanilla and precious redwood, yet is one of the world’s poorest countries, according to World Bank data, with 76 percent of people living in extreme poverty.