Madagascar: President and opposition leader agree to talks
The content of the talks between the two political rivals has been a closely guarded secret. "Everything is being kept confidential for the time being," Ivohasina Ravafimahefa, minister of economy, commerce and industry and a key figure in the presidential negotiating team, told IRIN. "This is for the good of the negotiations and has been agreed between the two parties."
Although Ravalomanana has indicated that social and economic reforms to address people's grievances will be implemented, there has not yet been any concrete indication that Rajoelina will settle for anything short of the president's removal.
The opposition leader and former major of the capital, Antananarivo, had originally made Ravalomanana's standing-down a pre-condition of engaging in talks, and has expressed dissatisfaction with progress so far.
The meetings are being hosted by the Council of Christian Churches in Madagascar (FFKM), a powerful organisation in a country where religion has often played an important role in politics.
Toning it down?
Ravalomanana and Rajoelina had agreed to suspend public protests during the talks, put a halt to arrests "of a political nature", and stop violence and looting on the giant Indian Ocean island.
Both parties have also said they will stop campaigns of public disinformation, a significant move; private broadcasters are frequently accused of being partisan and the boundaries between rumour and fact are often confused. The closure of Rajoelina's television channel, Viva, in December 2008 sparked the rapid deterioration in the relationship between Ravalomanana and the opposition leader.
According to Jean-Eric Rakotoharisoa, professor of law at the University of Antananarivo, successful talks could lead to an entirely new phase in Madagascar's political development.
''There is no protest today and we can trade freely again ... The two men are talking now and we hope for the best'' "There could be two possible outcomes to the negotiations," he told IRIN. "A neutral governing body that is neither with the president or the opposition, but made up of technocrats who return stability to the country; or a transitional government, with power shared between the parties of Ravalomanana and Rajoelina, that should also include other political forces, particularly those from the provinces."
Rakotoharisoa argues that if a transitional government is put in place, a third political force is now coming into play, consisting of groups predominantly from Madagascar's coastal areas, which have aligned themselves with the opposition movement.
"At the moment, discussions are only between parties from the centre of the country," said Rakotoharisoa. Tension between Madagascar's coastal inhabitants and those of the central plateau has long characterised Malagasy politics.
A major obstacle to implementing any sort of transitional government is Madagascar's current constitution, which does not provide the means to establish an interim governing body. According to Rakotoharisoa, the constitution would have to be suspended to allow for the creation of a new one.
There is also the question of the role of the army in finding a solution to the crisis. Historically, the Malagasy army has remained restrained and largely neutral in times of political unrest.
Last week, army chiefs announced that they would "fulfil their duties" in maintaining national unity and the rule of law in the event that no solution was found. Since then there has been speculation that this could mean that they would step in and take power if the situation deteriorated further.
Many fear that there is a long way to go before an agreement is reached. "Just because the men have met doesn't mean this is the end," said one analyst close to both parties, who wished to remain nameless. "The talks could fall apart very quickly; it could be a case of one step forward and two steps back."
Market traders and shop owners in Antananarivo, who have put up with massive disruption as a result of continuing demonstrations and strikes, have jumped on the opportunity to return to normal. "There is no protest today and we can trade freely again," said one woman selling towels. "The two men are talking now and we hope for the best."
President Ravalomanana, now in his second term, is credited with free market reforms that have stabilised the economy and attracted foreign investment.
However, Rajoelina, a charismatic young businessman, used his office as mayor to challenge Ravalomanana's democratic credentials and attack the government's record on poverty alleviation - both issues dear to many Malagasy.
23 February 2009