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Madagascar’s president seeks reelection. Most challengers are boycotting and hope voters do, too

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar (AP) — Madagascar’s Andry Rajoelina is pushing ahead with a presidential election that could give him a second term, even as opposition protests roil the island nation and the majority of candidates have announced a boycott.

Rajoelina, a 49-year-old former DJ, initially faced 12 competitors for Thursday’s election. But a collective of 10 candidates on Monday said they would not take part, claiming the electoral process is full of flaws. They encouraged people to stay away from polling booths.

Those boycotting are a collective of former political rivals including former leaders Marc Ravalomanana and Hery Rajaonarimampianina. They have organized peaceful marches across the capital almost every day since late September but security forces have violently put them down, leading to serious injuries and dozens of arrests.

The protests on the the Indian Ocean island intensified in recent weeks as the opposition, some churches and civil society pushed for a postponement. The election was postponed by a week from Nov. 9 by the country’s highest court after one candidate was injured during protests when security forces fired tear gas.

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Many in Madagascar and in the international community had hoped this election would break with the past of disputed votes, coups and political instability that have characterized the country since gaining independence from France in 1960.

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But the opposition argues that Rajoelina should be disqualified from the election because he obtained French citizenship in 2014. Rajoelina said he took up dual citizenship to secure his children’s education in former colonizer France.

According to rivals’ interpretation of the law, Rajoelina should have been stripped of his Malagasy nationality since he was an adult when he applied for a second nationality. However, the country’s highest court ruled in his favor last month.

Opposition leaders also allege that the national electoral commission lacks independence. They also demand the establishment of a special court to deal with electoral disputes, alleging that the High Constitutional Court is packed with Rajoelina allies.

The president will face Siteny Randrianasoloniaiko, a 51-year-old deputy for Tuléar city under Rajoelina’s IRD party in the island’s far south. He has distanced himself from the president. He says he agrees with the concerns of the other candidates boycotting the election but has chosen to participate rather than complain on the sidelines.

“I always agree with the demands of the collective of 11, they are fair. But I don’t believe in empty chair politics,” said Randrianasoloniaiko, a wealthy businessman.

Also on the ballot will be Sendrison Daniela Raderanirina, 62, who has lived mainly in France to pursue a career in information technology. He says he is running “to respond to the urgency of the situation in the country.”

Raderanirina is seen as lacking the financial muscle of the other two candidates participating on Thursday.

Eleven million people in Madagascar are registered to vote.

Defying a poor economic and human rights record, Rajoelina says he is confident, declaring that “no one can take victory away from me.”

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Most of Madagascar’s 30 million people still live in poverty in a country whose economy is anchored in agriculture and tourism but is largely dependent on foreign aid.

There has been a drop in the number of children attending school, and water and electricity shortages plague the capital, according to the World Bank.

Leading local nongovernmental organization Alliance Voary Gasy says concern is rife over massive deforestation, threatening what the United Nations calls Madagascar’s “unique biodiversity.”

According to a five-year study by local NGO Ivorary, only 13% of Rajoelina’s promises from the 2018 election have been fulfilled.

Rajoelina first took power in 2009 and served as president in a transitional government from 2009-14 after the previous leader, Marc Ravalomanana, was removed in a military-led coup. He made a return in 2018 when he beat Ravalomanana in a runoff.

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