ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar (AP) — Residents of the island nation of Madagascar cast their votes Friday in a presidential election that many hope will restore security, improve lives and mark the end of political and economic turmoil suffered since a 2009 coup.
More than sixty percent of eligible voters in the country's capital, Antananarivo, went to the polls, election officer Martin Rakotofiringa said. "This is the first time in several elections that I have seen a turnout this high," he said, after most polling stations closed.
Officials at some stations started to count ballots to the cheers of voters who came to watch. Rakotofiringa said the high number of voters is a sign that "people really want progress and change" in a nation with high levels of poverty and a wage of less than $2 a day.
"I came to vote because it's time for this crisis to end, and I am happy that this transition will finally end," said Ando Razakafiononana, 33. "I hope with the new president there will be more growth, more jobs and more security. Change must finally come."
Emilienne Ravaonasolo, 65, said she also had hope for the new leader. "Hopefully the person I vote for will have the experience to restore security and improve the lives of the people," she said. Poverty is a serious problem on the hilly East African island nation, with a population of about 22 million people. Half of the nation's children under five are severely malnourished and 1.5 million children are not in school, according to the U.N.
"Here in Madagascar, if you don't work, you don't eat," a resident said. Government officials declared Friday a holiday to allow voters to cast their ballots. But in the morning residents in the capital started the day by working before they voted.
Goods were carted in ox-drawn carts past the polling booths. Women at a river near a station did laundry, and local markets selling chicken and building materials remained open. Madagascar, off Africa's east coast on the Indian Ocean, plunged into turmoil after current President Andry Rajoelina, a former disc jockey and mayor of the capital Antananarivo, seized power from ousted President Marc Ravalomanana with the help of the military in 2009. Ravalomanana went into exile in South Africa.
Madagascar lost a lot of the foreign aid it depends on because of sanctions imposed after the 2009 coup. The nation was suspended from the African Union and the 15-nation Southern African Development Community, or SADC, until a constitutionally elected government was restored.
Outgoing president, Rajoelina, told reporters after casting his vote in Antananarivo, that it was time Madagascar "returned to the constitutional order." "The crisis has lasted too long...we feel the need of the Malagasy to fulfill their duty," he said.
Rajoelina tried to calm fears of a repeat of the 2009 coup saying "the results come from the choice of the people, we must accept it." With 33 candidates running in the election, it could prove difficult for a clear winner to emerge in the first round. If none of the candidates garners more than 50 percent of the votes, the two top candidates will compete in a runoff scheduled for Dec. 20.
The two front-runners are backed by rivals Rajoelina and Ravalomanana. Former finance minister Hery Rajaonarimampianina has been endorsed by Rajoelina and medical doctor Robinson Jean Louis is Ravalomanana's candidate.
Nine candidates, including three key politicians, were barred from taking part in the polls as part of a plan to resolve the political crisis. Former presidents Rajoelina and Didier Ratsiraka and former president Ravalomanana's wife, Lalao, were excluded for failing to comply with the country's electoral laws.
Observers said at the end of Friday's voting that the polls "seemed well-organized." "As a reminder, the election commission of this country is running their first polls, we can only assess the situation at the end, but so far so good," said Denis Kabina, an election observer with the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa.
A European Union representative in Madagascar, Leonidas Tezapsidis, said that voting appeared to be fair. "There were police outside the polling booths. We didn't see any signs of campaigning or voters being influenced," he said. Armed guards also stood outside polling stations.
The electoral body says more than 7.8 million eligible voters would cast their ballots at 20,000 polling stations. The election results will be announced within 10 days. Madagascar is renowned for its rain forests that feature a rare level of biodiversity, including endemic lemurs. The country's tourism industry, however, has also been badly hit by the political turmoil, further battering a nation that is one of the world's poorest countries.
Associated Press writer Gillian Gotora in Johannesburg contributed to this report.