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Antananarivo - Madagascar will hold a much-delayed presidential election in May next year, a key step in ending a protracted crisis sparked by a coup in 2009, the electoral commission announced on Wednesday.
The announcement comes just six days after high-stakes talks between ousted leader Marc Ravalomanana and the man who toppled him three years ago, Andry Rajoelina - the first time the rivals had met one-on-one.
The talks failed to resolve the thorny issue of Ravalomanana's return from exile in South Africa, where he fled after Rajoelina ousted him in March 2009 with the army's support.
Mediators from the 15-nation Southern African Development Community, which has been working to find a way out of the crisis, had set a deadline of July 31 for the rivals to settle their differences so a timetable for elections could be unveiled.
The UN resident representative in the country, Fatma Samoura, said the unveiling of the electoral calendar was a “relief” and an “important milestone”.
“We rely on the maturity and especially the commitment of all the protagonists to the crisis... to find a solution as soon as possible. I am very hopeful that... we are closer to the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Samoura.
But electoral commission chief Beatrice Atallah warned the political climate and the need to find international funding could still derail the timeline.
“The implementation of the electoral calendar remains dependent on the adequate legal framework, material and financial resources and a conducive political environment,” Atallah said.
The first round of voting is scheduled for May 8, 2013. A second round, if needed, will be held on July 3 - the same day as legislative elections, Atallah said.
Local government elections will take place on October 23, 2013.
The UN had pushed the electoral commission to schedule the presidential vote for May or June, six months after the date originally proposed by the authorities. The electoral commission had initially suggested December, a rainy month in Madagascar.
General Siaka Sangare, an elections expert with the OIF, a grouping of French-speaking nations, said the voting calendars were still subject to change but served to inject momentum into the electoral process.
“It does not necessarily mean the dates are unalterable,” said Sangare, adding the process depended on other factors such as funding, legal issues and the political environment.
African Union envoy Mourad Taiati said the process “will lead to elections that everyone wants”, but added: “The only concern is to see that these elections take place in greater transparency and credibility.”
Madagascar's main political factions signed an accord in September 2011 to draw up a road map to guide the Indian Ocean island to elections.
Reaching a deal on the conditions of Ravalomanana's return is seen as one of the key steps in efforts to lift the impoverished nation out of its dragging political crisis.
In 2010 Ravalomanana was sentenced in absentia to life in prison and hard labour for the murders of around 30 demonstrators killed by his presidential guard in the street protests that led to his overthrow.
The terms of a possible amnesty have long dogged negotiations.
He has twice tried to return to Madagascar, but officials there both times prevented him from entering the country. - Sapa-AFP