ANTANANARIVO – Madagascans voted on Friday for a new president and parliament in run-off elections aimed at pulling the island out of the political and economic doldrums and restoring democracy.
Islanders hope the vote will end the crisis sparked by Andry Rajoelina's coup four years ago, which paralysed much of the government and caused foreign donors to cancel aid.
Both Rajoelina and the man he ousted in March 2009, Marc Ravalomanana, have been blocked from running, amid international pressure over fears of a return to violence.
Instead, proxy candidates took part and won the two top places during a first round of voting on October 25.
Freemason doctor and former health minister Robinson Jean Louis is seen as a slight favourite after winning 21.16 per cent in the first round.
He enjoys the support of exiled leader Ravalomanana, who spoke at his rallies via phone from South Africa.
His opponent, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, an astute businessman and former finance minister under Rajoelina, won 15.85 per cent.
Campaigning wrapped up on Wednesday with a heated televised debate, after both candidates earlier addressed thousands of supporters at rallies in the capital Antananarivo.
"We won't accept vote-rigging. The people are with us to survey the vote," said Jean Louis amid concerns over irregularities.
If elected, he vowed to allow his mentor Ravalomanana to return.
More than 7.9 million Madagascans qualify to vote in the elections, which will also select 151 lawmakers.
Initial results are expected this weekend. Candidates from Rajoelina's camp won more than 50 per cent in the first round, but not all of these have supported Rajaonarimampianina's bid.
If voters followed their first-round candidates' endorsements, Jean Louis would get 42.9 per cent of the ballots, and Rajaonarimampianina 34.3 per cent.
Both candidates have promised a vast infrastructure construction programme for the lare Indian Ocean island, which is roughly the size of France and has a population of 22 million.
Nine out of 10 people in Madagascar live on less than $2 a day.
Election authorities said they had solved mishaps from the October vote, including restoring the names of 168,000 people left off the voters' roll.
Polls opened at 6:00 am and officially close at 5:00 pm, though stations will stay open to serve people already in the queue by then.
The election commission should announce the vote results January 7 at the latest, to be confirmed by the election commission by February 18. — AFP