Madagascar counts presidential election, economy at stake

Reuters

* Full results not expected for days

* Smooth vote key to restoring confidence in economy

* Military mutiny, coup provoked sanctions, donor backlash

* Outgoing leader Rajoelina tells candidates to acceptresult

By Richard Lough and Alain Iloniaina

ANTANANARIVO, Oct 25 (Reuters) - Counting began on Friday inMadagascar's presidential election which voters hope willencourage investors and donors to return to the Indian Oceanisland, four years after a coup sent its economy reeling.

Madagascar, famed for its wildlife and eyed by foreign firmsfor its minerals, has struggled to lure back tourists and courtoil and mining giants since street protests and mutinous troopsswept former disc jockey Andry Rajoelina into power in 2009. Theeconomy has slumped and poverty has deepened.

"The vote was an opportunity to show how fed up we hadbecome," said English teacher Lorette Rasoafara as the tallyingstarted, adding she had voted for a new political face. "If youwanted to go back in time you voted for the old guard."

It could be more than a week before the election result isclear. There are no exit polls and while partial results wereexpected to trickle in overnight, the electoral commission(CENIT) has until Nov. 8 to announce a provisional result. Therewere no initial indications as to how high turnout was.

EU observers said there had been some problems with voterregistration and voting materials had been missing at some ofthe 20,000 polling stations. But there had been no signs ofvoter intimidation, they said.

"The conditions are there for a transparent and crediblevote," said Maria Muniz de Urquiza, head of the EU mission.

Rajoelina said the people's choice should be respected.

He was barred by an electoral court from running forpresident, as was the wife of the man he ousted, MarcRavalomanana. The election is not expected to produce anoutright winner from among the 33 candidates, meaning a likelyrunoff in December.

SHORT OF CASH

Donors such as the European Union, International MonetaryFund and World Bank have frozen funds since the coup.

In an interview with Reuters, Finance Minister LantoniainaRasoloelison said the island would find it hard to meet itsspending needs unless foreign donors resumed support withinthree months of a new president being elected.

Nine out of 10 people in the country of 22 million live onless than $2 a day.

Election monitors said voting was calm and orderly. A localchief was killed in a polling station in the island's south, butthe attack was linked to cattle rustling gangs.

In the grounds of a secondary school in Antananarivo,capital of the former French colony, supporters of rivalcandidates cheered as election officials chalked up the resultson blackboards and on official electoral commission documents.

Armed police kept a low profile in the capital, where someeligible voters said they had been unable to register.

"We don't understand why. It's frustrating. There are manypeople like me," said one woman hawking second hand clothes.

Presidential hopefuls have criss-crossed the vast island offAfrica promising tax cuts, better management of the island'soil, nickel, cobalt and gold and a crackdown on corruption.

Many Malagasy, however, fear the result will be disputed,keeping investors at bay. Foreign direct investment intoMadagascar has slumped to a projected $460 million this yearfrom $1.36 billion in 2009, World Bank data shows.

Rajoelina urged candidates to accept the vote's outcome. "Wewill take all necessary precautions to avoid anyone causingtrouble," he said after voting, without elaborating.

Rajoelina rose to power after galvanising popular anger atRavalomanana's perceived abuses of power. He spearheaded violentstreet protests in early 2009 and toppled the self-mademillionaire after dissident soldiers swung behind him.

Diplomats said they were watching the response of themilitary, still headed by a general who backed the removal ofRavalomanana and whose commanders are seen as loyal toRajoelina.

Rajoelina and Ravalomanana agreed with regional states notto run for the presidency in order to help restore order, butremain influential in the voting, analysts say.

Ravalomanana, who has fled to South Africa, has backed JeanLouis Robinson, a former minister during his presidency.

Publicly, Rajoelina has not endorsed a candidate. But HeryRajaonarimampianina, a former finance minister, and EdgardRazafindravahy are widely seen as his political associates.

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