Madagascar will hold the first round of its presidential elections on Thursday, with the run-up to the vote marred by near daily opposition demonstrations.Here are five things to know about the large Indian Ocean island, one of the world’s poorest countries despite vast natural resources.- Cyclones and biodiversity – Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world, with a surface area of 587,000 square kilometres (226,600 square miles) and a population of almost 29 million. Tropical storms regularly hit the country, with Cyclone Freddy killing at least seven people in February.Cyclone Batsirai claimed more than 120 lives and destroyed thousands of homes in 2022. The island is home to exceptional biodiversity, including a variety of endangered species.But many plants and animals — including turtles, lemurs, reptiles and seahorses — are victim to trafficking. – Green gold – Madagascar is the world’s leading producer of vanilla, which is one of the most expensive spices after saffron. The farms, mainly in the north east of the island, are unique in that they have to be pollinated by hand, unlike other vanilla-producing regions such as South America, where the flowers are pollinated by bees.After the Covid pandemic, the government imposed a price floor of 250 dollars per kilo, in an attempt to prevent a sudden collapse in the market. But this drove foreign buyers to look elsewhere for lower prices. Exports fell to $546.6 million in 2022, compared with $617.4 million in 2021, according to the Central Bank of Madagascar. The government recently announced a return to market liberalisation.- Poverty – Despite its vast natural resources, a large proportion of Madagascar’s population lives in poverty after decades of low growth. The country has one of the highest poverty rates in the world, reaching 75 percent in 2022 according to the World Bank.Average income per capita is less than $500 a year. While the economy is forecast to grow four percent in 2023, it is not enough to support the rapidly growing population.A vast area in the south of the island has also been hit by the worst drought in 40 years.At least 1.3 million Madagascans are suffering from malnutrition, and the country is the first to face food shortages linked to climate change, according to the UN. – Political crises – Madagascar has been shaken for over a month by demonstrations called by the opposition, which is demanding a “fair and equitable” presidential election. Since independence from France in 1960, the island has experienced successive political crises. The first president of the Malagasy Republic, Philibert Tsiranana, was forced to hand over power to the army in 1972, after a popular uprising was bloodily suppressed.His successor in 1975, Didier Ratsiraka, was also forced to resign after a protest movement in the early 1990s, before returning in 1996. Millionaire Marc Ravalomanana succeeded him in 2002, after a post-electoral crisis degenerated into armed clashes between his supporters and those of Ratsiraka. Ravalomanana was re-elected in 2006.- The Rajoelina era -In 2009, Andry Rajoelina, the then mayor of Antananarivo and in conflict with the regime, gathered over 20,000 people in the capital during demonstrations marked by violence. The military handed power to Rajoelina, who had to wait until 2018 to be finally elected. This June, the press revealed that he had become a naturalised French citizen in 2014. According to his detractors, the outgoing president has thus lost his Malagasy nationality and can neither stand for election nor govern.He had stepped down in January 2014, only to make a winning comeback in 2018.The rejection by the courts in September of three appeals calling for his candidacy to be invalidated triggered a wave of opposition protests.