November 17, 2010 / 9:22 AM / 9 years ago

Madagascar votes on constitution aimed at ending crisis

* Referendum seen by some as vote of confidence on Rajoelina

* “Yes” vote likely to win, turnout unpredictable By Alain Iloniaina

ANTANANARIVO, Nov 17 (Reuters) - Voting was under way in Madagascar on Wednesday in a referendum on a draft constitution that would allow President Andry Rajoelina, who seized power last year, to stay in office until the next election.

Voters on the world’s fourth largest island started casting their ballots at more than 18,000 polling stations at 6 a.m. (0300 GMT). The three main opposition parties, each headed by a former president, are boycotting the vote.

Rajoelina scrapped the old constitution after ousting unpopular leader Marc Ravalomanana with military backing, creating turmoil on the island targeted by foreign investors for its oil, nickel, cobalt and uranium deposits.

“I voted yes. I decided this will ... put a definitive end to this crisis,” said Tina Rakotovao, a doctor in the capital Antananarivo.

Political observers are tilting towards a win for the “Yes” camp. However, they say a low turnout, especially in the capital, would be a blow for Rajoelina and do little to remove doubts about the legitimacy of his rule. [ID:nLDE6AF0NM]

Africa’s youngest leader, Rajoelina rose to power on wave of popular support, galvanising widespread anger over Ravalomanana’s increasingly autocratic style of leadership.

The new constitution lowers the minimum age for a president by five years to 35, which would regularise 36-year-old Rajoelina’s rule and allow him to renege on a previous pledge that he will not contest the next vote slated for May 4, 2011.

Tensions have risen in the capital in the run up to the vote, with sporadic skirmishes between police and opposition supporters after the government banned public meetings.

A Reuters witness said the security forces were keeping a low profile on the streets of the crumbling capital. Earlier, the military police said armed officers would be moving around the city in cars.

The proposed new basic law sets no deadline for presidential elections, which critics say could allow Rajoelina to remain indefinitely at the helm of the country brought to fame by its lemurs and the DreamWorks animation film “Madagascar”.

Opponents of the draft document say it also fails to weaken the powers of the president.

“I won’t vote. Whether ‘yes’ or ‘no’ wins, nothing will change and the crisis will persist,” said opposition supporter Michel Andrianirina. (Writing by Richard Lough; editing by David Clarke and Philippa Fletcher)

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