- As Madagascar makes its way to polling stations on Sunday after weeks of campaigning dominated by incumbent president Marc Ravalomanana, other presidential hopefuls are already questioning the possible outcome.
In contrast to the previous election in 2001, when the population was engaged in the political process and there was a strong desire to vote, only the careful observer in the streets of the capital, Antananarivo, would have noticed that campaigning and election preparations were underway.
"People have become very distrustful of political leaders, which can explain the lack of interest in the election," Jean-Eric Rakotoarisoa, Vice-President of the University of Antananarivo and member of the civil society platform 'Observatoire de la vie publique' (Observatory of public life), told the UN media 'IRIN'.
"There's clearly a feeling of deception after the promises of change made in the 2001 election," he said. "Purchasing power, especially [in urban areas], dropped, and people are now struggling to live, or survive, on a daily basis."
Only a few posters - many are torn off the billboards as soon as they are put up - and the occasional gathering, where local music stars are used to draw crowds, indicate the upcoming ballot.
Madagascar's High Constitutional Court (HCC) approved 13 presidential challengers but only five of them, including incumbent President Ravalomanana, have the money to campaign visibly.
He was able to visit around 120 places scattered across the island in three weeks, while the other candidates, at best, could only afford to campaign in the main cities, and usually only in their own region.
Despite requests to amend the electoral code to grant political parties campaign funding, the consensus is that - as in the 2001 election - running for President is limited to those who can afford it.
President Ravalomanana was elected on his promise to improve the living conditions of the poorest. Despite some improvements, like the rehabilitation of roads, schools and health facilities, and curbing inflation and depreciation of the Ariary (the local currency), there have been protests over worsening standards of living and hikes in the price of fuel and rice, the staple food.
Unless a single candidate takes over 50 percent of the vote, a second round run-off between the top two contenders will follow. But most analysts believe Mr Ravalomanana will top the polls already in the first round.
"What is most important to the majority of the people now, is to have a president who they think can put something on their plate," Mr Rakotoarisoa said. "Everybody is aware that the country can't afford a [repeat of] '2002 events' - people [have been deterred] by [the memory of] this crisis because of the social and economic impact it had on them."
In 2001, President Ravalomanana and the then incumbent, Didier Ratsiraka, both claimed victory. Mr Ratsiraka's supporters tried to blockade the capital, Antananarivo, which was pro-Ravalomanana, while Mr Ravalomanana's supporters staged massive demonstrations, paralysing the country.
The crisis lasted eight months until a recount in April 2002 ended the violent standoff and the High Constitutional Court pronounced Mr Ravalomanana President. But it was not until July that outgoing President Ratsiraka fled into exile in France and Mr Ravalomanana could take control of the country.
Many attributed the 2002 crisis, at least in part, to the lack of transparency and questionable fairness of the polls. Malagasy civil society and international donors recommended that the electoral process be reformed to regain people's confidence.
"In April 2006 we organised a large consultation with civil society, political parties, authorities and churches, and we made ... recommendations, [ranging] from the creation of an independent electoral commission to the use of a single ballot ... [paper] and improvement of the electoral lists," said Bruno Rakotoarison, General Secretary of the National Election Observation Committee (CNOE), an association with some 2,800 members around the country.
The recommendations were presented to parliament for discussion and adoption, but President Ravalomanana declined to change anything and commentators said the recommendations were "buried". "Our advocacy hasn't been heard," said United Nations (UN) resident coordinator Bouri Sanhouidi.
"There is an atmosphere of discomfort, of fear, which is quite paralysing," a local analyst commented. "Ravalomanana is said to be arrogant, contemptuous of his political opposition and civil society. With his categorical refusal to change anything in the electoral process, there's a risk of increasing the number of discontented people."
The National Election Committee (CNE) has found many mistakes in the computerised electoral list and just two days ahead of the election, the exact number of voters is still not known.
Some candidates have already questioned the election's legitimacy, citing irregularities in the organisation of the polls. "It is the first time in Madagascar [that] the results of a poll are contested before an election takes place," said Mr Rakotoarisoa.
"It is very important to maintain dialogue between authorities and candidates for the environment to be as serene as possible," said Mr Sanhouidi. "International partners have committed to support the electoral process so that it can be as transparent as possible."
The European Union, the biggest donor, has given more than US$ 3.7 million dollars towards ensuring a free and fair election. The United Nations Development Programme donated US$ 1.2 million, and Japan, Norway, China, France and the United States have also contributed.
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