People line up before voting at a polling centre in the capital Antananarivo. Madagascar began voting in a presidential election they hope will end a five-year crisis and rebuild investor confidence to mend an economy crippled since President Andry Rajoelina seized power in a 2009 coup. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

AXA AFR

MADAGASCAR-6TH-LD-VOTE by Tsiresena Manjakahery

ANTANANARIVO October 25 Sapa-AFP

MADAGASCAR IN FIRST POST-COUP POLL

Madagascar voted in crunch elections Friday to restore democracy after a 2009 coup plunged the island nation into crisis, with isolated incidents of violence leaving one dead.

A senior government official was killed and a polling station torched as voters sought to end a crisis which has crippled the country since strongman Andry Rajoelina, 39, ousted Marc Ravalomanana four years ago.

An interior ministry source speaking on condition of anonymity said the district chief had been killed while hiding in a polling station in an apparent revenge attack unrelated to the election.

“Already before the elections someone had stolen his cattle and set fire to his house,” the ministry official told AFP.

Another person was kidnapped from a voting site in Bezaha, elsewhere in the south, while a polling station was burned down in the northern district of Tsaratanana.

Voting was suspended until the three stations were moved.

Despite the incidents, observers hailed the vote as generally peaceful.

“Overall it's quiet, there is no major problem,” Stephane Mondon heading the Carter Centre group observers told AFP. “There are many people who showed up to vote, especially in the capital.”

The UN country representative Fatma Samoura however noted some “hiccups”, but “they won't call into question the process,” she said.

Close to 6,000 observers, including 800 foreign monitors, kept an eye over the polls.

Voters were optimistic the election would allow the country to turn the page on its political crisis which has harshly impacted the economy.

The world's fourth-largest island, famed for picture-perfect beaches and lemurs, is a magnet for tourists.

“I think Madagascar will emerge from the crisis in this election,” said voter Alain Yves in the capital Antananarivo.

Around 7.8 million voters were eligible to elect a successor to Rajoelina's interim government.

By mid-morning over 50 percent of voters turned out in the Analamanga region, which encompasses Antananarivo, and between 35

and 45 percent in the provinces, according to figures electoral authorities released on national radio.

In some places the voters roll did not include the names of people who took part in an electoral census last year, while others did not have voter ID cards.

The main political players Ä including Rajoelina and Ravalomanana Ähave been barred from running to prevent their long-standing political wrangling from jeopardising the vote.

With 33 candidates on the ballot and no clear favourite, chances of a first-round outright winner looked slim, raising the possibility of a run-off in eight weeks' time.

Despite the number and variety of candidates Ä including ex-ministers, a conservationist and a rock singer Ä analysts say only about six are serious contenders.

Rajoelina voted in a suburb of the capital Antananarivo, vowing he was “ready to transfer power according to the rules of the game.”

“Our challenge is to end the transition in peace and above all to avoid that the country descends into civil war or confrontation.”

He has not named a preferred successor, but former finance minister Hery Rajaonarimampianina is perceived as his favourite.

Rajoelina said he would support a candidate in an eventual second round of voting scheduled for December 20, along with legislative polls.

Since independence from France in 1960, the Indian Ocean island nation of 22.3 million people has lurched from one crisis to another.

The seizure of power by Rajoelina, who was then mayor of Antananarivo, plunged the country into a political, social and economic quagmire.

Donors shunned their former darling, investors stayed away and poverty increased to 92 percent of the population Ä the worst level in any country outside war zones, according to the World Bank.

UN food agency WFP on Friday reiterated its concern over four million people in rural areas who face hunger after averse weather and locusts destroyed their crop.

After several failed attempts to return home from South Africa ahead of the elections, exiled Ravalomanana pushed his wife Lalao to run, but was blocked. His former health minister Robinson Jean Louis is now in the race.

But it may not be over for the Ravalomananas: Jean Louis suggested one of the pair might become prime minister if he won.

Polling stations will close at 5:00pm (1400 GMT) and early partial results are expected to start trickling in by Friday night.

Sapa-AFP