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The Cartoon Farce of Madagascar's Election

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The people of Madagascar head to the polls this week to select a new president. The outcome will be a critical test for both the region's progression towards democracy and the international community's resolve.

If you know absolutely nothing about Madagascar's politics, you're certainly not alone. Most Americans are familiar with the cuddly cartoon lemurs from the family films. Few people know the less playful Madagascar reality. Its cast includes brutal military coups, predatory politicians, locusts, heavily armed cattle rustlers terrorizing and killing helpless villagers, and even bubonic plague.

Madagascar's history over the last five years is more unbelievable than cartoon fiction. In 2009, a 34-year-old radio disc jockey Andry Rajoelina drew upon support from the army to topple the incumbent president, Marc Ravalomanana -- a man who grew up selling yogurt off a cart in the capital before building a dairy empire and eventually winning the presidency.

Because of the coup, Madagascar became an international pariah. Expelled from the African Union and isolated diplomatically, international aid dried up. Overnight, 40 percent of an already thin budget vanished. One of the world's poorest countries is now significantly poorer.

The election this Friday -- the first since the coup -- is a big opportunity for Madagascar and the international community. For Malagasies, it is an opportunity to elect a new leader at a time of unprecedented crisis. For the international community, it is a chance to showcase a firm commitment to democracy and make clear that coup governments and sham elections will not be tolerated. Sadly, it is likely that both opportunities will be missed.

If that happens, crisis and tragedy may follow. Since the coup, Madagascar's government has withered to a much smaller group of self-interested regime insiders, even compared to the ridiculously low standards of African politics. The economy, which was growing rapidly before the coup, has stagnated since. Four million people face food shortages because locust swarms have devoured staple crops and the government is powerless to help. Cattle rustler militias known as dahalo have killed dozens of villagers in the process of stealing tens of thousands of humped cows (zébus). And to add farce to tragedy, there is currently an outbreak of bubonic plague -- the medieval Black Death has literally returned to modern Madagascar.

Any of these problems individually could be catastrophic, even in a country with an effective government with a strong bureaucracy. Yet Madagascar lacks good governance, and all of these calamities are hitting the island at once. If, somehow, Malagasies weather these storms, cyclone season is just around the corner.

Madagascar needs effective political leaders now, but they are unlikely to arise from this election. Neither the incumbent (Rajoelina) nor the toppled former president (Ravalomanana) are on the ballot, but they are represented by proxy candidates who seem to be cut from the same self-interested cloth.

Should we care about Madagascar and its election? Or, should we dismiss Madagascar as an exotic island far away, with problems that are not ours?

Dismissing Madagascar as irrelevant would be a mistake.

Power-hungry politicians in fragile democracies pay attention to elections elsewhere. When electoral manipulation is rewarded, they do not miss the lesson. Alternatively, when sham elections are condemned, they learn a different lesson.

The election in Madagascar is a test of the international community's commitment to democracy. There is a strong possibility that the international community will fail this test. International mediators are eager to take credit for four years of diplomatic wrangling paving the way to elections. They will be prone to rubber-stamping a bad election simply to claim victory and save face. Others may follow suit, to resume disbursing backlogged foreign aid that has been earmarked for Madagascar but shelved since 2009. If a bad election is praised as a good one, democracy across the region will suffer.

Moreover, if Madagascar lurches straight back into a crisis or a coup after elections, the humanitarian break point may approach quickly. The international community will be forced to choose between costly emergency aid or watch a large swath of the Malagasy population starve to death.

Finally, political volatility in Madagascar threatens the world's premier biodiversity hotspot. Most of Madagascar's 200,000 native species (including its famous lemurs) exist only there. The ongoing political chaos has allowed lawless habitat destruction. Even dozens of endangered lemur species are being hunted for food by starving Malagasies. The world may lose countless species to extinction, with key impacts on scientific research.

On Friday, Malagasies will supposedly choose who will lead them through these turbulent times. Because that choice is likely to be little more than an electoral farce, the international community will also have to make a choice. Will they turn a blind eye to electoral manipulation and rampant "irregularities" while congratulating themselves in diplomatic circles for steering Madagascar back to democracy? Or will they send a message that governments that come to power by breaking the key rules of democracy do not get rewarded with aid and diplomatic recognition?

Unfortunately, it seems most likely that the reality in Madagascar will once more be obscured by a cartoon caricature.

Brian Klaas focuses on Madagascar politics, elections, and political violence at the University of Oxford.

Jason Pack is a researcher of African History at Cambridge University and President of Libya-Analysis.com.