Image: Soldiers in presidential palace in Madagascar
Jerome Delay  /  AP
A Madagascar soldier goes through the Lavoloha presidential palace outside Antananarivo, Madagascar, on Wednesday. news services
updated 3/18/2009 11:28:02 AM ET 2009-03-18T15:28:02

Madagascar's new president, Andry Rajoelina, celebrated and consolidated power Wednesday after being appointed by the Indian Ocean island's military in a move that drew international disapproval.

Rajoelina, 34, a former disc jockey, partied with supporters in the street after meeting his ministers to plan strategy.

The priorities for Africa's newest leader are anti-poverty programs demanded by locals, handling international concerns at his rise and controlling some dissent in the armed forces.

"We will bring about the return to a normal life, to security and above all national reconciliation, which is at the heart of democracy," he told several thousand supporters celebrating in the capital Antananarivo.

In a boost to Rajoelina's legitimacy, Madagascar's Constitutional Court issued a statement endorsing the takeover.

The court gave no reasons, saying only that Marc Ravalomanana had vacated his presidential post and left the military to make the decision on how it would be filled.

Rajoelina is to be formally sworn in on Saturday.

Weeks of strikes, protests
Ravalomanana resigned on Tuesday after most of the military backed his rival, who had led weeks of anti-government strikes and protests.

The worst unrest in years killed at least 135 people, devastated the $390 million-a-year tourism sector and worried multinationals with investments in the mining and oil industries.

The outcome was also a slap in the face for the African Union, which has censured recent violent transfers of power that have damaged the continent's reputation with investors.

Nervous of more turmoil, the U.S. Embassy ordered non-essential staff and their families to leave Madagascar.

Experts said Western donors' disquiet at the manner of Rajoelina's rise would be short-term.

"With so many people below the poverty line I can't see the international community abandoning Madagascar in the long run, and (Rajoelina) knows this," Lydie Boka, of Paris-based risk group StrategiCo, said.

While the military was crucial in installing the opposition leader, analysts say he also has the backing of exiled former president Didier Ratsiraka and his allies. Some analysts said former colonial ruler France gave him tacit support too.

Ravalomanana's whereabouts were unclear. The opposition had accused him of corruption and of losing touch with the majority of the population who live on less than $2 a day.

There was a heavy military presence at the palace where Ravalomanana capitulated. A Reuters TV witness saw broken windows and furniture, as well as a crowbar lodged in the door of a safe. It was not clear whether departing presidential guards, the army or the public had ransacked the building.

Worry on the streets
The streets of the capital were calm Wednesday, but residents were worried.

Video: Change of control Tahiana Rakotoniaina, a financial consultant, said he did not believe Rajoelina was capable of running the country and he did not believe Ravalomanana's supporters would accept defeat quietly.

"I'm not sure it's really over," said Emeline Raharinandrasana, a retired office worker. "Is this new authority legal? If not, will the international community continue to help us? That worries me the most."

But Dieudonne Randriantsoa, a teacher, said the international community would in the end have to "accept the will of the people ... as happened in 2002."

Ravalomanana clashed with former President Didier Ratsiraka when both claimed the presidency after a disputed December 2001 election. After low-level fighting split the country between two governments, two capitals and two presidents, Ratsiraka fled to France in June 2002.

Ravalomanana won re-election in 2006, though two opposition candidates tried to challenge the validity of that vote.

"Will we never have democratic change?" asked Antananarivo resident Mirana Razanaparany. "Why does it always have to come from the streets?"

According to Malagasy law, the head of parliament's upper house should have taken over after the president's resignation and organized an election within two months on the island of 20 million off Africa's southeastern coast.

Image: Andry Rajoelina
Jerome Delay  /  AP
Andry Rajoelina parades through the streets of Antananarivo, Madagascar, after assuming power at the downtown presidential office on Tuesday.
Instead, Rajoelina — who is six years too young to be president under the constitution — now heads a transitional government which has pledged to hold a poll within two years.

Pierrot Rajaonarivelo, a former deputy premier and close ally of the exiled Ratsiraka, said that was much too long.

"Why and for what reason is he taking 24 months as his starting point?" Rajaonarivelo told Reuters in Paris. "I'm among the people behind him (Rajoelina) but I think as far as his approach is concerned, there's a bit of amateurism there."

The African Union had demanded the constitution be respected scrupulously. But the fact the army refused to take over on Tuesday, as Ravalomanana had requested, means the African Union may not brand it a coup, which would have meant suspending Madagascar.

"The fact the president let go of power offers the international community a legal footing (for relations with the new government) if it is looking for one," local constitutional law expert Jean-Erik Rakotoarisoa told Reuters.

After recent coups in Mauritania and Guinea as well as the killing of Guinea-Bissau's leader, Ravalomanana's fall raises doubts over the durability of democracies elsewhere in Africa.

South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, who is chairman of the Southern African Development Community regional trade bloc, denounced the change of power — underlining the diplomatic difficulties Rajoelina may face.

SADC executive secretary Tomaz Salamao said the bloc had scheduled a meeting in Swaziland on Thursday to discuss how to handle the situation, which he said was sad and unacceptable.

Still, some analysts said the departure of Ravalomanana — a 59-year-old self-made dairy tycoon — would at least end the bloodshed for now and soothe the concerns of foreign investors.

"The transitional government will probably not take aim at foreign investors in the extractive industries, in part because it will be desperate for those revenues," said Philippe de Pontet, Middle East and Africa analyst at Eurasia group.

More on Madagascar

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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