Antananarivo - Voters in Madagascar lined up early on Wednesday to vote “yes” or “no” on a new constitution that calls for keeping a coup leader in power indefinitely.
A holiday was called for the vote and streets in the capital were calm on Wednesday morning. Police vehicles cruised after minor violence was reported overnight. A fire was set at the offices of a party close to the coup leader, Andry Rajoelina. No one was injured and police have not said what they believe to be the motive.
Rajoelina's opponents have called for a protest at midday, but such demonstrations are banned and it was unclear whether it would be held.
The constitutional referendum is being held in defiance of regional efforts to negotiate a solution with the president ousted in 2009 and other leaders. A key clause in the proposed charter states that the current leader of a so-called High Transitional Authority - Rajoelina - would remain in power until a new president is elected.
Writer and legal expert Johary Ravaloson noted that Rajoelina has set no date for stepping down, nor has he spelled out conditions for holding the next election.
The first election results were expected late on Wednesday, but final results may take up to 10 days.
The parties of ousted President Marc Ravalomanana and of former presidents Didier Ratsiraka and Albert Zafy have called for a boycott of the referendum.
“This test of the people's will is not a priority for the country, and it will not help Madagascar escape its political crisis nor this regime gain international recognition,” said Lalatiana Ravolomanana, a Zafy aide.
This nation of 20 million has been at a political impasse, with violence occasionally flaring up, since Rajoelina's military-backed and widely denounced takeover in March 2009 sent Ravalomanana into exile in South Africa. Rajoelina has refused to allow Ravalomanana to return. In August, a court established by Rajoelina convicted Ravalomanana in absentia of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced him to life in prison in a case related to the turmoil of the coup that toppled him.
Rajoelina accuses Ravalomanana, a wealthy businessman, of misuse of office and of being blind to poverty on the island nation famous for lemurs and other wildlife found nowhere else in the world, and the inspiration for two animated films of the same name. Ravalomanana says his rival, a disc jockey turned entrepreneur, is a populist and rabble-rouser with little genuine interest in democracy.
The impasse has meant hardship for the impoverished island. Western countries have frozen all but humanitarian and emergency aid. - Sapa-AP