By Lovasoa Rabary
ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) -Voting closed in the first round of Madagascar’s presidential election on Thursday, which took place despite a boycott by most opposition candidate and weeks of violent protests in the run-up to polling day.
The election unfolded peacefully with a low-key security presence across the capital Antananarivo but turn-out was low.
The opposition said in a statement late on Thursday that the participation rate was “the lowest in the entire history of Madagascar” citing provisional figures from electoral observers.
“We confirm that the struggle continues and we will not stop until victory is achieved,” the statement said.
The electoral body CENI said it did not yet have official figures and could not comment.
Campaign group Transparency International warned authorities against legitimising the results of an electoral process they describes as “opaque and captured.”
People queued at polling stations in areas supporting President Andry Rajoelina and his Tanora MalaGasy Vonona (Young Malagasy People Ready) party, while those in opposition neighbourhoods were mostly empty.
Polls closed at 5 p.m. (1400 GMT) and provisional results were expected late in the evening.
Local election officials said initial voter turn-out was about 30% in areas supporting the ruling party and just 15 to 20% in opposition strongholds, signalling public disdain towards the vote.
Mama Pôta, a shop vendor in the capital, said she had no intention of casting her vote.
“I am not going to vote because it is an election that doesn’t meet the standards, so what’s the point,” the 50-year-old said.
The opposition held marches for over six weeks before the vote, pushing for its postponement. Its also demanded new people be put in charge of the electoral commission and a special court set up to hear vote disputes.
But Rajoelina, who is seeking a third term, dismissed calls for a delay as a political tactic and warned opponents that trying to prevent people from voting was unlawful.
“A handful of people tried to prevent citizens from expressing their choice. They have the right not to participate but the populations have the right and the duty to vote,” he said after voting in Antananarivo’s northern neighbourhood of Atmobe, flanked by his wife and children.
Rajoelina faces growing isolation after leading opposition figures, including two former presidents, declared him unfit to run and called on their supporters to abstain from voting.
Rija Ralijaona, a 26-year-old day labourer, said she expected whoever wins the election to reduce unemployment.
“I expect the next president to create jobs for young people,” she said, as she prepared to cast her vote at dawn.
Calls by the opposition to postpone the elections were echoed by the organisation grouping Madagascar’s four biggest Christian churches, which declared on Wednesday that it would not observe the vote, citing an unsuitable political environment and lack of standards.
Rajoelina, a 49-year-old entrepreneur and former DJ, rose to power in a 2009 coup that scared off investors in the Indian Ocean island. He stepped down after almost five years as leader of a transitional authority and then became president after winning a 2018 election.
His opponents say he should be disqualified because he acquired French nationality in 2014.
Rajoelina says the constitution does not require the head of state to exclusively hold Malagasy nationality, and that any loss of nationality is subject to signed authorization by the government.
Over the past six weeks, police have used tear gas to break up regular protests by opposition supporters.
The U.N. human rights office said last month security forces had used “unnecessary and disproportionate force” on peaceful protesters and called for respect for freedom of expression and assembly. The government said its duty was to maintain order.
(Reporting by Lovasoa Rabary; Writing by Giulia Paravicini; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Edmund Klamann, Angus MacSwan, Christina Fincher, William Maclean)