ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) - Madagascar will vote in a long-awaited referendum on a new constitution on Wednesday, a vote seen as a crucial step towards restoring political order on the Indian Ocean island and ending an almost two-year crisis.
Analysts say the outcome of the referendum, which some critics says amounts to little more than a vote of confidence on President Andry Rajoelina’s interim administration, is difficult to predict but they are tilting towards a ‘Yes’ vote.
The country’s three main opposition parties have called on their supporters to boycott the plebiscite. That would dent turnout but ultimately could boost the ‘Yes’ vote, analysts say.
Rajoelina scrapped the old basic law when he seized power from former leader Marc Ravalomanana with help from dissident troops and popular support in the capital Antananarivo.
Failure to end the leadership squabbles and deliver on populist pledges made during the often violent campaign to topple Ravalomanana in early 2009 have eroded Rajoelina’s popularity, some political analysts say.
“If turnout is high and the ‘Yes’ takes it then that will allow for this political process to pave the way for an exit to the crisis,” said social commentator Paul Rabary.
“If turnout is low or the ‘No’ carries the vote, at least in the capital, that will undermine the regime and will force it to be more open towards the opposition.”
The referendum was postponed in June as a new basic law had not been completed.
The draft document lowers the minimum age for a serving president to 35 from 40, a clause which would allow 36-year old Rajoelina to stay in office and run for the presidency next year if he wished.
Earlier this year the former disc-jockey said he would not contest the vote slated for May 4.
The proposed constitution also requires presidential candidates to be resident in the country for at least six months prior to elections, a clause analysts said was a deliberate ploy to prevent Ravalomanana, who is exiled in South Africa, from staging a comeback.
But the proposed document’s critics say it sets no limit on the transitional government’s duration, meaning next year’s election dates are not legally binding. It also keeps power concentrated in the president’s hands, they say.
“This constitutional project ... does not free the Malagasy people from what they have already rejected: a centralised, irresponsible power acting with impunity,” said Malagasy lawyer and writer Johary Ravaloson.
The government says the proposed constitution introduces check and balances to the executive but critics say those checks are flimsy at best. The new constitution would include, for example, a High Council for the Defence of Deocracy and the Rule of Law and a High Council for National Defence. But their powers are not detailed in the constitution and would require new laws to be passed.
Rajoelina has floundered in diplomatic isolation since his power grab.
The African Union has slapped sanctions on Rajoelina and more than one hundred of his closest allies, while foreign donors branded his takeover a coup and froze aid worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Those measures will remain in place as donors and regional blocs have said free and fair elections must be held before sanctions are repealed and the country can start receiving aid again.
The political crisis has hammered the $8.6 billion economy, scaring off tourists, denting its investor friendly image and forcing the shelving of nearly all public investment projects due to a sharp cut in budgetary assistance.
Foreign firms are keen to develop Madagascar’s oil, cobalt, nickel, gold and uranium deposits.
Lydie Boka, a Madagascar expert at the Lille-based risk consultancy group, StrategieCo., said both Rajoelina and donors were looking for a way to bestow a degree of legitimacy on his troubled leadership.
“What Rajoelina is trying to achieve is to show the world that he is merely expressing the people’s will,” Boka told Reuters. “Donors know too they cannot ignore Madagascar for too long and are tying to find an acceptable basis for negotiation.”