The Wilson Center’s Africa Program hosted a private meeting with Béatrice Atallah, President of Madagascar’s Commission Electorale Nationale Indépendante pour la Transition (CENI-T). In attendance were government officials and various representatives from NGOs, IGOs and academia. Steve McDonald, Director of the Africa Program and Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, moderated the discussion. Atallah’s comments were made in French and translated into English by Africa Program Associate Mame Khady Diouf and Atallah’s Chief of Staff, Thierry Venty. The substance of the session follows without attribution to sources.
Malagasy democracy has been in what one participant termed a “state of turbulence” since a military coup d’état in March 2009. A roadmap to peace was signed in September 2011, and the CENI-T was formed in February 2012 as a formal body to manage the electoral process. An election schedule was announced in February 2013; the first round of presidential elections was slated for July 24, 2013, but has since been postponed to August 23 due to financial shortfalls. The discussion focused on CENI-T’s activities to ensure a credible election, as well as the challenges associated with this process.
Structure of CENI-T
The CENI-T is composed of 23 members: ten representatives of Malagasy civil society, two government representatives, and ten representatives from political parties that signed the 2011 Roadmap. Atallah, the President of CENI-T, is not an official member of the Committee; rather, she was elected by the group to serve at the helm in March 2012. CENI-T works across Madagascar at regional, district, and communal levels to ensure credible elections. It is working simultaneously on the first round of the presidential elections, whether in July or August, and the legislative elections on September 25 and the communal elections on October 13.
Progress of CENI-T
Since October 2012, CENI-T has been working to revise electoral rolls, culminating with the final list of 41 candidates put forth on May 3, 2013. CENI-T has also emphasized voter registration: currently, 87% of the population is registered to vote with an ID card. The organization is also training election officials to properly administer and monitor elections, as well as journalists to cover and report on the event. CENI-T is actively involved in civic education, working to inform the population about the importance of the election and voting procedures. The group relies on support from groups such as the Indian Ocean Commission, Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the African Union, and the European Union, as well as the countries of Switzerland, Norway, and South Korea. With this support, CENI-T strives for transparency, serving as a “moral guardian” for the electoral process. Despite their optimistic outlook, CENI-T acknowledges that there may be potential challenges to the credibility of the election. As such, the group’s ten political members are working with two representatives for each of the 41 candidates to maintain open communication and ensure that all parties are satisfied with the administration of the election.
Challenges to CENI-T’s Mission
As CENI-T is heavily reliant on international support, it is especially sensitive to foreign sentiment. Thus, when the names of President Andry Rajoelina, former First Lady Lalao Ravalomanana, and former President Didier Ratsiraka (individuals widely considered by the international community as destabilizing factors that could undermine the validity of the elections) appeared on the final electoral list, CENI-T found itself in a difficult position. The final electoral list was approved by a Special Electoral Court. CENI-T has no jurisdiction to make any changes to the list without the Court’s approval. As a result, the flow of funds into elections preparation has been stopped. Given that the government receives two-thirds of its budget from the international community, this is a dire problem. CENI-T has handled 90% of the technical aspects for the July elections, but there are significant unresolved financial issues associated with the dissemination and collection of ballots. The ability to stage the September and October votes may be in jeopardy.
CENI-T is bound by the decision of the Court and the outcome of SADC’s negotiations with the aforementioned parties. One participant characterized the country’s political situation as the “Achilles heel” of CENI-T’s operations: it is critical to determining how CENI-T moves forward, but at the same time it is also entirely beyond the scope of the organization’s control. Recently, two of the three candidates in question have demonstrated an openness to consider removing their names from the ballot. The final outcome of these discussions was to be rendered on Saturday, May 25, the date by which Atallah required a final answer. However, it still remains unclear which of the candidates intends to run in the election. CENI-T is prepared to hold the elections regardless of the outcome of the talks, but recognizes that there will be serious challenges to the legitimacy of the poll if the three do not recuse themselves. For that reason, CENI-T is preparing electoral dispute resolution mechanisms—training 100 lawyers and election observers in election challenge procedures.
It is too early to know what will happen with the Malagasy elections of 2013. But CENI-T is working to ensure free and fair elections that may begin to pull the country out of political and social gridlock. CENI-T acknowledges that it is engaged in high-stakes work; if the elections are successful, constitutional normalcy can return to Madagascar, finally legitimizing a new government and allowing for the normalization of relations with other nations. Participants, though cognizant of the challenges CENI-T faces, were guardedly optimistic about the situation in Madagascar.