Madagascar Politics – Legitimacy and Popular Disillusion

BRIAN ERNST

After four years of undemocratic government, Madagascar looked set this year to hold competitive elections and begin the Indian Ocean island’s return path to democracy. Then, two former presidents and the current president entered their names onto the ballot in violation of international agreements, and the process has once again stalled. The short term effect of the delayed elections will be a continuation of Andry Rajoelina’s troubled rule and the economic stagnation of the country. The longer and more pernicious effect will be the ongoing erosion of the population’s belief in, and support for, the country’s governing structures.

Like many nations transitioning into competitive politics, the process in Madagascar has been a bumpy road. In 20 years, the country has already had an impeached president, a disputed election that split the island in two, and a military backed coup d’état. Democracy has yet to become ‘the only game in town’ and thus political movements willingly ignore or change the rules to fit their agenda. The result is not just coups and mutinies, but a population that no longer believes in the system or thinks it worthwhile to engage in government.
The break between citizen and leadership has its roots in the passing of the first democratic Constitution of Madagascar in 1993. The result of a months long campaign of massive street protests for an end to socialism, the Constitution rejected the previous leader’s plan for a federalist style state in favor of a strong central authority. In the years since, each successive President – Zafy, Ratsiraka, Ravalomanana, and Rajoelina – has held a referendum for a new or amended Constitution that further concentrated power into the hands of the executive branch. In its latest iteration, the President can appoint one-third of the Senators without oversight and control the appointment of 5 of 9 justices in the highest court.

At the same time, Madagascar’s politics are an elite-driven system that revolve around the “byzantine-like elite struggle” of 20 or so families in the capital, Antananarivo. Political parties are typically vehicles for promoting a single individual and rarely exist as a policy platform for citizens to select candidates. The media is similarly controlled, a Mediabarometer survey in 2012 found that the state media had little independence from the executive and “most, if not all” private media services were tied to leading political actors. Off to the side of this insular political environment, the military waits (sometimes) to step in and play the kingmaker. In the power transitions of 1972, 1991, 2002, and 2009, the military was the decisive element in unseating the presiding leader.

The dual forces of concentration of power into the presidency and politics at an elite level have undermined the general population’s support for the political system. When people think about participating in politics, the first reaction is often – why bother? One citizen remarked to me in 2010 that politics was just “something they do in the capital”. This sentiment is widespread among the population: when asked by the Afrobarometer survey in 2008 on their support for democracy, less than 40% of Malagasy people indicated that “democracy is preferable to any other form of government.” Such levels of disillusionment are uncommonly high, even among other politically troubled countries in Africa.

This disillusionment with the political system extends into the population’s overall engagement with politics. Malagasy citizens discuss politics with friends and family half as much as other countries.

Most importantly, without popular support for democratic politics and participation in the process, Madagascar’s democratic future will continue to be shadowed in uncertainty. One study found that the factor most likely to increase popular belief in the legitimacy of their government was citizen engagement in the system – everything from joining parties to participating in village councils. However, as the political elites in the country carry onwards with their own infighting (see the most recent election chaos),  the general populace can only become more disconnected from the system, and it seems increasingly likely that faith in government will spiral downwards. Absent that trust in the legitimacy of their state institutions, the future politics of Madagascar will continue to be subject to mutinies, coups, and corruption. Whenever an election finally does occur, the winner must do more than govern in the capital, but also win back the people.

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2 thoughts on “Madagascar Politics – Legitimacy and Popular Disillusion

  1. Morgan Day says:

    In situations where the general populace feels that the government has little to do with their daily lives, I always wonder what mechanism can best reintegrate citizens into the political sphere. Do you have any suggestions for bringing the Malagasy people back into political fold?

  2. Brian Ernst says:

    Ideally, executive power would be reduced, some powers devolved into local areas, and parliamentary influence increased. If people can engage in meaningful decisions at a local level, it’s more likely that they will find democratic institutions to be a good idea overall. Additionally, much of the problem seems to be poor representation of district interests at the national stage. Typically, the majority party is that of the President, and most parliamentarians feel more indebted to the President for winning their position than to their constituents. Reforming electoral rules and institutional rules could help rebalance that dynamic. However, achieving such reforms is challenging. Political party strengthening is one method that often helps and doesn’t require incumbent leaders to fall on their swords.

    This is also a classic ‘what comes first’ story of development. To some – good governance and responsible leaders create the environment that makes democratic principles seem worth abiding by, and the populace then follows along. For others – popular participation is the first step to holding leaders accountable and ensuring they are following the rules of the game. In this case, I would say that elite level reform is needed to convince people that participation is worthwhile, but grassroots level change is never something to be dismissed.

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