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Madagascar's Radio DJ President Jockeys for Power

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Only amateurs steal elections on election day anymore. Today, the pros manipulate elections long before the voting begins -- making sure the playing field is so uneven that election day rigging is unnecessary.

Madagascar's recent election, on Dec. 20, 2013, offers important lessons for western policymakers seeking to repair broken democracies. The Indian Ocean island may seem politically irrelevant, but the lessons it can teach us should not be ignored.

Madagascar is, undeniably a strange place. In 2009, Andry Rajoelina, a radio disc jockey turned mayor, overthrew dairy magnate president Marc Ravalomanana in a military coup d'état.

The election was supposed to end the ensuing five-year political "transition." Voting, it was thought, could restore democracy and jumpstart growth. This was imperative, since the coup precipitated international isolation, severing foreign aid, and causing a 40 percent reduction to Madagascar's budget.

The road has been rocky. Since the election, the army fired live rounds at student protestors, killing one and seriously wounding many more. On inauguration day on January 25, an attacker threw a grenade into a crowd, killing a young child and wounding dozens. The former president, who came to power via a coup was barred from running in elections. He now seems to be plotting a Putin-esque power grab, trading president for prime minister.

To do so, he will have to grapple with newly inaugurated president Hery Rajaonarimampianina (who has the longest surname of any head of state in the world). This power struggle could again destabilize Madagascar.

Malagasy political elites forged this precarious situation. They have made a national tradition of sacrificing national interest for personal ambition. Rajoelina is personally implicated in large-scale resource corruption, including trade in endangered rosewood. His predecessor, Marc Ravalomanana, sought to cash in on a dubious land deal--aiming to sell half of Madagascar's arable land to Daewoo, a South Korean firm.

Both men -- Rajoelina and Ravalomanana -- wanted another chance to taste the nectars of corruption and power. However, the international community successfully pressured them to offer proxy candidates instead. A move intended to lower emotional tensions and end the longstanding crisis. The victor, Rajaonarimampianina, stood for Rajoelina. The defeated candidate, former government minister Jean-Louis Robinson, stood in for Ravalomanana -- who is still exiled in South Africa.

The election had to succeed. Madagascar cannot afford another crisis.

Most people know the island as the home for lemurs, but few know that it is
home to 22 million people -- with 20 million living on less than $2 per day. For most, life has deteriorated sharply since the 2009 coup. While politicians prospered, people suffered.

Despite the high stakes, election day went smoothly. International observers praised the vote, citing few irregularities. They did not witness widespread intimidation or ballot box stuffing, two historic plagues of African elections.

So what's the problem? And why are grenade attacks and state-sponsored violence toward protesters happening if the election went smoothly?

In Africa and around the developing world, election-day rigging is amateur hour. International observers easily detect ballot box stuffing. Other forms of pre-election manipulation, however, remain shrouded in an opportunistic cloud, allowing strongmen to do their dirty work and get away with it.

Let's be clear: this is not to say that Madagascar's election was stolen. We don't know if it was, because there was so little transparency surrounding critical aspects of democratic fairness.

Some flaws, though, are well-known. Former President Ravalomanana's wife, Lalao, was not allowed to be a candidate because she was in forced exile and did not fulfill the residency requirement. This technicality manipulation allowed Rajoelina to sideline a political opponent using exile, a bad precedent for democracy. Likewise, Rajoelina campaigned aggressively even though his involvement was a clear violation of Malagasy electoral law.

Other aspects are shrouded in darkness. There was no oversight of campaign finance. Nobody has any idea how much money was spent or where it came from. The only hint comes from an EU-funded survey carried out by a Malagasy NGO that shows Rajaonarimampianina purchased nearly 8 times more media time than Robinson. Where did that financial edge come from? We have no clue. But given that Rajaonarimampianina was the candidate backed by the president and his regime -- which is implicated in illegal rosewood trading -- not having an answer is disconcerting.

Voter registration was equally opaque. Only 75 percent of age-eligible Malagasy were on the voter list. Ultimately, between two and three million people were left off the voter rolls and could not vote -- a significant number since only four million ballots were cast.

Additionally, 140,000 voters were added to the list between the two election rounds. It is unclear whether the registration process generally, or the late additions, favored one candidate over the other.

Western governments insist on basic transparency for these pre-election procedures in their own countries. They should insist on it elsewhere, too.

Until they do so, crude ballot box stuffing will increasingly be replaced by behind-the-scenes pre-election manipulation, another avenue for suppressing the will of the people.

Western governments also need to recognize that elections are a step forward, not a panacea. Madagascar's election did nothing to change the underlying dynamics that sparked the crisis. Grenade attacks, bleeding protestors, and Putin-esque power grabs make clear that the crisis is not over. International pressure should address the causes of toxic politics, not just the symptoms.

America can help. During President Obama's tour of Africa last year, he promised that to build global democracy, America is "interested in investing not in strongmen, but in strong institutions." But until the lessons from Madagascar's December 20 vote are learned and policies are adapted accordingly, strongmen will win, democratic institutions will lose, and America's promise will remain empty words.

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

Brian Klaas is a researcher focusing on Madagascar's politics, elections, and political violence at the University of Oxford. He served as an adviser to the Carter Center's election observation mission in Madagascar, but the opinions expressed here are his own.