Madagascar's influential Council of Churches has offered to mediate between government and opposition leaders to resolve a presidential election dispute which has led to weeks of massive protests and a crippling, indefinite national strike.
The strike, which enters its third day on Wednesday, was called by Marc Ravalomanana, a leading businessman and mayor of the capital Antananarivo. He was one of six presidential candidates who went to the polls on 16 December. Ravalomanana and President Didier Ratsiraka, who has been in power for the better part of 25 years since 1975, won just under 50 percent each of the vote, according to official results confirmed by the High Constitutional Court last week.
However, Ravalomanana has led his supporters in demonstration for more than three weeks, claiming to have won an outright majority, making a run-off unnecessary. Opposition parties have alleged that the election was rigged. The government announced on Sunday that the second round of voting would take place on 24 February, with campaigning set to begin on 9 February.
UN Development Programme Resident Representative Adama Guindo told IRIN on Tuesday that businesses, shops and schools were affected by the strike. He said about half-a-million protesters marched on buildings used by state radio and television to pressure officials to reflect the opposition's campaign more fairly and accurately.
"For the time being there is a total blackout on national television and radio. When they talk about it (the opposition campaign), it's a few seconds or minutes," he said. "But they (the opposition) met with officials there who indicated they will submit the request to the ministry of information. Basically the officials say they see no problem with this." News reports said opposition leaders planned on marching to the information ministry on Wednesday.
The protracted dispute and fears of violence have prompted the UN to restrict staff travel to and within the country. Guindo said "security phase one" had been declared in Madagascar - meaning that all visiting UN staff need security clearance from the UNDP before entering the country.
The decision came after Security Council President Jagdish Koonjul issued a statement late on Monday, calling for all parties to refrain from violence.
"The Security Council called on both candidates to comply with all constitutional, electoral and legal requirements and requested that the elections be conducted in a free, fair and transparent manner, in the presence of international observers. The Security Council called on the supporters of both candidates to refrain from violence. The Security Council appeals to the Malagasy people to remain calm and to respect the results of the next round of elections," his statement said.
Ratsiraka's government did not allow international observers during the election and local observers have publicly supported Ravalomanana's claims of outright victory. Ravalomanana, who really only burst onto the political scene during the 2000 mayoral campaign in the capital, has also enjoyed some support from the church.
Guindo said that while the UN and international donors were suggesting a second round of voting with international observers, the church was proposing that both candidates accept the court's ruling and that the national electoral commission be restructured and made more independent. It was unclear on Tuesday night whether the parties would accept the church offer.
Stephen Ellis, senior researcher at The African Studies Centre based in Leiden in the Netherlands, told IRIN on Tuesday that the large turnout at the protests indicated two things - that Madagascans supported Ravalomanana and that they were simply tired of the present government.
Ellis, who lived and worked in the country for several years, said there had been a "very rapid impoverishment" in Madagascar. "He (Ratsiraka) is the incumbent and rightly or wrongly, people hold him responsible for the current situation, and he must have a large part of the responsibility as he's been in power for most of 25 years," he said.
Ellis said it was clear that Ravalomanana had a political base in the capital, and outside of it to an extent, but it was difficult to measure real support for him against people's protest against the government.
One diplomat in the capital said it was clear that Madagascar's almost 14 million people (10 percent of whom live in and around the capital) wanted a change of government. Two prominent former politicians had contested the elections and lost, said the diplomat who did not want to be named, indicating "clearly that people want to close the page on former politicians".
"It's true that there is a deep quest for change. People want change. You feel that of course in the capital and in some of the provincial cities. It's true that a lot of people voted for Ravalomanana ... people want someone new," he said.
Guindo told IRIN there was concern about the effect the crisis could have on the region. "You have a lot of enterprises from Mauritius which have invested here in the export processing zones ... and some of them who are French. There is great concern that these enterprises may not be able to expect the same level of production and that this could have an impact on these businesses and on Mauritius," he said.
If the crisis deepened, he added, there was also the possibility of Madagascans fleeing to safer pastures, creating a ripple effect on the country's economy and that of its neighbours. Some analysts said the impact would be limited because of its relative isolation.