Johannesburg, 18 November 2010 (IRIN) - A coup attempt, coinciding with a referendum on a new constitution held amid widespread speculation that two exiled former presidents will return within days, is propelling Madagascar into a situation where "anything can happen", an analyst told IRIN.
"No one will recognize results of the referendum [on 17 November], even though it might be a ‘yes’ vote," David Zounmenou, a senior researcher in the African conflict prevention programme at the Pretoria-based think-tank, the Institute for Security Studies, told IRIN.
A low turn-out, especially in the capital, Antananarivo, where President Andry Rajoelina was mayor of the city before becoming president, would also undermine claims of legitimacy, he said. Opposition parties called for a boycott of the referendum and no voter participation numbers have yet been published.
The referendum – not sanctioned by the African Union or the regional body, the Southern African Development Community – included proposals for reducing the age of eligibility for presidential office from 40 years to 35 years, and that any Madagascan national standing as a candidate must have resided in the country for at least six months prior to the poll.
Rajoelina was 35 years old when he forced former President Marc Ravalomanana out of office during his second term of office with the backing of the army in March 2009, but his administration has failed to secure international recognition.
Donors suspended all but emergency assistance to the financially dependent country of 20 million people after Rajoelina took office, and the US ended the preferential access enjoyed by Madagascar's textile industry to it markets under the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA).
AGOA permitted some African states to export goods duty free to the US and had created about 50,000 jobs, with employment for a further 100,000 indirectly.
The 17 November referendum is seen by observers as an attempt by the 36-year-old president to gain a degree of legitimacy ahead of possible presidential elections in May 2011.
If the new constitution was adopted, former presidents Ravalomanana and Didier Ratsiraka – who have both reportedly expressed an interest in contesting a presidential race – would have to return within the next few days to qualify as candidates.
Ravalomanana, a self-made millionaire and owner of the country's largest indigenous company, has been in exile in South Africa; Ratsiraka, having lost the 2002 election to Ravalomanana, fled to France after disputing the result and pushing the country close to conflict.
Zounmenou said the clauses in the new constitution that reduced the age for eligibility to hold office indicated that Rajoelina wanted to stand in presidential elections and exclude his rivals - Ravalomanana and Ratsiraka - from contesting the poll in exile.
However, the situation was becoming "increasingly dangerous", as the army "is so fragmented and divided ... and morale is very low," he said.
Rajoelina told local media at a polling station on the morning of the referendum, "I have received death threats from [some] soldiers if I don't resign. I am not afraid. God is protecting me."
A few hours later, 18 senior military officers, including Rajoelina's former minister of defence, Gen Noel Rakotonandrasana, declared at a military base near the city's international airport that the government had been dissolved and replaced by a military committee. It is unclear whether the officers have wider support among the security services.
Other senior officers reportedly involved in the coup attempt were Ravalomanana's former director of the presidential guard, Gen Raoelina Jean Heriniaina, as well as Lt-Col Charles Andrianasoavina, currently serving as the commanding officer of the mining brigade, and other high-ranking officers whose allegiance is split between Rajoelina and Ravalomanana.
According to reports the base has been surrounded by soldiers, and on 18 November ongoing mediation was being conducted between the military officers and representatives of Rajoelina's government.
There have been minor incidents of unrest in the capital, but no injuries or deaths have been reported.
An aid worker, who declined to be named, told IRIN that soldiers had been deployed along the road to the airport and around the military base where the senior officers were holed up, but troops were not patrolling other parts of the capital