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Low turnout looms over boycott-hit Madagascar presidential election

Madagascar's outgoing President Andry Rajoelina (2nd L) urged people to vote and ignore an opposition call to boycott the polls (MAMYRAEL)
Madagascar's outgoing President Andry Rajoelina (2nd L) urged people to vote and ignore an opposition call to boycott the polls (MAMYRAEL)

Madagascar voted in highly contested presidential elections on Thursday that were boycotted by most opposition candidates and appeared to have resulted in a very low turnout.

As polling stations began closing and counting got under way, two senior sources within the electoral commission told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity, that preliminary data suggested less than 20 percent of those registered showed up to vote.

President Andry Rajoelina has voiced confidence in being re-elected, brushing off criticism and weeks of protests that have rocked the Indian Ocean island nation.

"I'm confident in the maturity of Malagasy democracy, and I'm also confident in the choice of the Malagasy people," he said, after casting his ballot in the capital, Antananarivo, urging everyone to do the same.

"There are always people trying to stir up trouble and prevent elections in Madagascar. But I thank the wisdom of the people."

Rajoelina, 49, was one of 13 candidates on the ballot but 10 of the others called on voters to shun the elections, complaining of an "institutional coup" in favour of the incumbent.

A poor turnout is likely to strengthen the hand of the opposition grouping, which has vowed to continue protesting until a fair election is held.

Eleven million people were registered to vote in the country of about 30 million.

- 'Turn the page' -

Following a night-time curfew, voting passed off calmly in the capital, AFP journalists saw, with voters emerging from rudimentary polling centres, their thumbs stained with green and gold indelible ink.

"I'm worried because there are some factions who just want the country to be in chaos," Francky Randriananantoandro, a computer science student, told AFP.

"We have to move on, turn the page. For 60 years that was already the case, and I think we have to stop now."

Madagascar is the leading global producer of vanilla but also one of the world's poorest countries and has been shaken by successive political crises since independence from France in 1960.

Since early October, the opposition grouping -- which includes two former presidents -- has led near-daily, largely unauthorised protest marches in the capital.

Police have regularly dispersed them, firing tear gas.

On Wednesday, authorities imposed a night-time curfew in Antananarivo, following what police said were "various acts of sabotage".

Rajoelina first took power in 2009 on the back of a coup that ousted then president Marc Ravalomanana, who is among the boycotting opposition candidates.

After not contesting the 2013 election due to international pressure, Rajoelina was voted back into power in 2018.

As his opponents refused to campaign, he flew across the country by private plane, showcasing schools, roads and hospitals built during his tenure.

"I'm voting, but we know this isn't normal," said 43-year-old Eugene Rakatomalala. "There weren't any candidates who did campaigns."

But many others seemed to have stayed away.

- 'Fraud' -

Two hours before polls closed, at a school-turned-polling station in Ravalomanana's stronghold district in Antananarivo, an election official yawned, while another sat with his head resting on his hands.

Only 18 percent of those registered there had shown up, they said. "It's really not much," said one.

At another polling station in a poor district of the capital, officials said turnout was around 30 percent when an AFP reporter visited in the afternoon.

For many, politics takes a back seat to making ends meet.

"In the morning, I don't eat -- only a little at lunchtime and in the evening. Otherwise, I can't get by, I don't have enough," Josiane Rasomalala, 41, told AFP.

"I'm voting because we need a better life."

Madagascar has been in turmoil since media reports in June revealed Rajoelina had acquired French nationality in 2014.

Under local law, the president should have lost his Madagascan nationality, and with it, the ability to lead the country, his opponents said.

Rajoelina has denied trying to conceal his naturalisation, saying he became French to allow his children to study abroad.

His challengers were further enraged by another ruling allowing for an ally of the president to take over the reins of the nation on an interim basis after Rajoelina resigned in line with the constitution to run for re-election.

They have also complained about electoral irregularities.

"In Androy, the polling stations are literally closed, there are no voters," said Siteny Randrianasoloniaiko -- one of two opposition candidates not taking part in the boycott -- referring to a southern region of Madagascar.

"In some offices, there are no voting booths... we are already seeing fraud."

Results are not expected for at least a week.