Polity: Presidential-parliamentary democracy
Population: 16,900,000
GNI/Capita: $840
Life Expectancy: 55
Religious Groups: Indigenous beliefs (52 percent), Christian (41 percent), Muslim (7 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Malay-Indonesian tribes, Arab, African, Indian, French
Capital: Antananarivo

Political Rights Score: 3
Civil Liberties Score: 4
Status: Partly Free

Ratings Change
Madagascar's political rights rating declined from 2 to 3 due to sustained civil unrest and violence resulting from the December 2001 presidential election.


The year was dominated by fallout from political polarization and unrest. In April the High Constitutional Court declared Marc Ravalomanana the victor of contested December 2001 presidential elections. Official results had previously given Ravalomanana 46 percent of the vote, less than the majority required to avoid a runoff. Subsequent massive demonstrations against President Didier Ratsiraka alleged widespread government fraud, while a runoff was supposed to take place by mid-February 2002. Ravalomanana, however, claimed that he had been denied an outright victory by polling irregularities and refused to take part in a runoff. His position was subsequently endorsed by the High Court, but President Ratsiraka refused to acknowledge the court's ruling.

Unrest and violence occurred between supporters of the two rival candidates during the year, but Ravalomanana succeeded in establishing his authority over the country in stages, with Ratsiraka's supporters holding out the longest in eastern Madagascar, his traditional region of support. Ratsiraka left the country on July 5, and the last of his forces subsequently surrendered. Although most of the country's traditional diplomatic partners, and international bodies such as the United Nations eventually recognized the Ravalomanana government, the African Union had not done so by the end of 2002. The extended crisis had a seriously negative effect on the Malagasy economy.

Parliamentary elections took place on December 15, 2002. Backers of Madagascar's President Marc Ravolamanana won a large majority. Observers from the European Union said the conduct of the poll was "generally positive" despite a few reported "lapses", while the International Francophone Organization said it was "credible and transparent." One provincial governor, a nephew of former president Ratsiraka, resigned, charging that the vote was marred by serious irregularities and nepotism.

Madagascar, the world's fourth-largest island, lies 220 miles off Africa's southeastern coast. After 70 years of French colonial rule and episodes of severe repression, Madagascar gained independence in 1960. A leftist military junta seized power from President Philbert Tsiranana in 1972. A member of the junta, Admiral Ratsiraka, emerged as leader in 1975 and maintained power until his increasingly authoritarian regime bowed to social unrest and nonviolent mass demonstrations in 1991. Under a new 1992 constitution, opposition leader Albert Zafy won the presidency with more than 65 percent of the vote. President Zafy failed to win reelection after being impeached by the Supreme Court in 1996. Ratsiraka won a narrow victory in a December 1996 presidential runoff election that was deemed generally legitimate by international and domestic observers.

Until the 2001-2002 presidential crisis, Madagascar had made some progress in consolidating its democratic institutions, although a weak party system complicated efforts at governance. Legislative elections in May 1998 were viewed as more problematic than preceding polls taken since Madagascar's transition to multiparty politics in 1992. The Council of Christian Churches and several political groups, for example, noted that the elections were marred by fraud and other abuses. AREMA won 63 of 150 parliamentary seats and emerged as the leading force in a coalition government. A new party led by Norbert Ratsirahonana, a former prime minister, fared well in and around the capital of Antananarivo. A decentralization plan was narrowly approved in a 1998 referendum that was boycotted by the country's increasingly fractious opposition. In 2001 the first-ever senate elections, part of a policy to extend democratic governance, finally took place after a long delay.

Race and ethnicity are important factors in Madagascar's politics. Its population, mostly very poor, is divided between highland Merina people of Malay origin and coastal peoples mostly of mixed (Malayo-Polynesian, Arab, and African) descent or of black-African origin.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

In theory citizens have the right to change their government democratically, although the recent presidential election demonstrates that in practice this right is not yet fully recognized. The president is directly elected by universal adult suffrage. Since 1992, two presidential elections have resulted in the defeat of the incumbent and one president was impeached by parliament.

The legislature is bicameral. The lower chamber, the National Assembly (Antenimieram Pirenena), has 150 members, directly elected for five-year terms. The upper chamber, the Senate, has 90 members – two-thirds of them elected by an electoral college, the remainder nominated by the president – all for six-year terms. Prior to the December 2002 parliamentary election, AREMA was the largest party in the National Assembly; it also had won 49 of the 60 seats in senatorial elections in March 2001. A 1998 constitutional referendum gave the president the power to appoint or dismiss the prime minister (who may come from a party that has a minority of seats in the assembly); formerly the National Assembly had this power.

November 1999 municipal polls resulted in overall success for independents who did not have close identification with a particular party. Elections were held in December 2000 for provincial councils, as the next step in the government's decentralization policy. Approximately 150 parties are registered amid a welter of shifting political alliances. A variety of parties exist and are active, but they suffer from internal divisions and lack of clear ideology and resources.

As has been graphically evidenced by events over the past year, political and civic organizations exercise their right to affect the public policy process. Massive protests against President Didier Ratsiraka's attempts to cling to power highlighted much of this period (as they had 12 years earlier, at the end of Ratsiraka's dictatorship). Less dramatically, in 1999 opposition leaders and the Madagascar Council of Christian Churches undertook a public information campaign to revise the constitution to limit the powers of the president. In 2000, opposition parties not represented in the legislature formed the Cellule de Crise (Crisis Cell) to unite against the ruling coalition. In January 2001, demonstrations occurred in the capital with opposition supporters calling for Ratsiraka to step down in favor of Ravalomanana.

With the stated intent of reestablishing a rule of law, President Ravalomanana sought to arrest and prosecute individuals who were involved in acts of "terrorism" or murder during the recent crisis. Most of these people were pro-Ratsiraka and cotiers (coastal people). Some observers have claimed that the actual or rumored arrests of key Ratsiraka supporters were designed to intimidate Ravolamana's opponents prior to the December legislative elections. In turn, however, the media and some in the public have denounced this accusation as an attempt to destabilize the new regime by "tribalizing" the arrests.

Overall the judiciary is demonstrating increasing autonomy. A lack of training, resources, and personnel hampers the courts' effectiveness. Case backlogs are prodigious. Most of the 20,000 people held in the country's prisons are pretrial detainees, who suffer extremely harsh conditions. In many rural areas, customary law courts that follow neither due process nor standardized judicial procedure often issue summary and severe punishments.

According to the BBC, since the departure of former President Ratsiraka in July 2002, the media in Madagascar have become less polarized, even though the division of the country into two political camps following the disputed December 2001 presidential elections is still felt in some quarters. Madagascar's 17 million people have access to six daily newspapers and a number of weeklies and monthlies, as well as numerous TV and radio stations. Because of the low literacy rate, the print media are mostly aimed at the French-educated urban elite. Some formerly pro-Ratsiraka radio stations, which used to operate like "hate radios" during the crisis, have switched to more mainstream forms of broadcasting.

Approximately 45 percent of the workforce is female. Malagasy women hold significantly more governmental and managerial positions than women in continental African countries. At the same time, they face societal discrimination and enjoy fewer opportunities than men for higher education and official employment.

The right to free association is respected, and hundreds of nongovernmental organizations, including lawyers' and human rights groups, are active. The government does not interfere with religious rights. More than half of the population adheres to traditional Malagasy religions and coexists with Christians and Muslims. In 1997, the Rally for Madagascar's Muslim Democrats was registered as the country's first Islamic political party.

Workers' rights to join unions and to strike are exercised frequently. Some of the country's labor organizations are affiliated with political groups. More than four-fifths of the labor force is employed in agriculture, fishing, and forestry at subsistence wages. Madagascar ranked 145 out of 173 countries in the U.N. Development Program's 2002 Human Development Index.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.