Antananarivo - Madagascar votes Friday in long-delayed elections meant to pull the island nation out of a devastating political crisis that plunged millions into misery after a 2009 coup.
The much-awaited polls, plagued by years of postponement, will see 33 candidates vying for head of state, after radio DJ-turned-strongman Andry Rajoelina and the leader he ousted, Marc Ravalomanana, were barred from the race.
At stake is the return to democratic rule, needed to bring back desperately needed donor funding and investment to the impoverished Indian Ocean island off the coast of southeast Africa.
Poverty levels have climbed nearly eight percent since 2005 and now 92 percent of the population live on less than $2 a day Ä “the worst rate for a country not at war”, according to the World Bank's chief in Madagascar, Haleh Bridi.
Foreign donors, who used to bankroll 40 percent of the government's budget, have cut funding since Rajoelina seized power with the army's backing against a backdrop of violent anti-Ravalomanana protests.
“There is a good chance that if a new government is elected, it will likely enjoy greater international legitimacy, allowing for the resumption of aid and foreign investment,” said Stephen Ellis of Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Madagascar has in the past four years seen a drop in foreign aid, sluggish investment, corruption, food shortages, insecurity and worsening social conditions.
“What the domestic population is looking for is a return to stability and legitimacy in order to move on,” said Charles Laurie, an analyst with the London-based Maplecroft group.
“Investors will be looking for the same, as will international governments and aid organisations.”
International aid agencies are also pinning their hopes on the vote.
“These elections are an opportunity to get things on track,” said Steven Lauwerier, UNICEF representative in Madagascar.
Seeking to prevent a potential dispute after the vote, mediators managed to seal a deal to block Rajoelina and Ravalomanana, the two main and fiercely bitter political rivals, “because that is the only way to have peaceful elections,” said a European diplomat.
Given the popular support the two politicians command, “certainly this is not entirely democratic”, the diplomat said.
“But it is certain that if we had Ravalomanana and Rajoelina (in the race), things would have gone wrong.”
After a blocked attempt to push his wife Lalao to run, Ravalomanana - living in exile in South Africa - decided to back Robinson Jean Louis, his former health minister. If he wins, Jean Louis has vowed to appoint either Ravalomanana or his wife as prime minister.
Rajoelina's TGV party has fielded three candidates for the race, a move likely to split its votes. The favourite of the trio is former finance minister Hery Rajaonarimampianina.
Rajoelina himself has not ruled out serving in government if his party wins, a move that would likely anger foreign donors and investors.
“Investors will need assurance that the Rajoelina and Ravalomanana feud will not manifest in proxy candidates,” said Laurie.
Despite the deployment of about 800 international and 5 000 local observers, fears of fraud abound.
“The prospects of free and fair election remains uncertain,” said Laurie.
“The state is in complete decay. How can a state like that organise decent elections that would be credible?” asked Solofo Randrianja, a political historian at the University of Tamatave.
“This election is badly organised,” said 52-year-old mother Holy, angry at the late distribution of voter cards.
The European Union, which has sent 94 observers to observe the election on the vanilla-producing island, has pointed to logistical problems in the preparation of the poll, particularly in Madagascar's remote mountainous regions.
Both local and foreign observers have raised concerns that ballot papers and boxes are being kept in the custody of local village heads ahead of the vote.
The introduction of a single ballot paper for this vote may also prove problematic in a country with high illiteracy rates.
But campaigning has so far gone smoothly.
If no-one emerges winner in the first round, a run-off will take place in December.
The battery of 33 presidential hopefuls includes a rock singer, a policeman and a conservationist, as well as ex-ministers and an ex-parliament speaker.
“Given the number of candidates, the only thing people remember at the end, except for a few individuals, is their number,” said political scientist Roselyne Rahanivoson.