Under the Radar: the Crisis in Madagascar

Rally against Andry Rajoelina's installation
Rally against Andry Rajoelina’s installation. Photo: r1_lita/flickr.

Isolated for around 80 million years, the island of Madagascar is home to hundreds of animals and plants that exist nowhere else in the world. A biodiversity hotspot of exotic fauna and flora, the Indian Ocean island is often likened to paradise. Yet Madagascar continues to be rocked severe economic and political crises – problems that remain largely unnoticed by Western audiences.

Ever since the 2009 ouster of its democratically elected president Marc Ravalomanana, Madagascar has been paralyzed by a political stalemate that has brought the already impoverished island of 20 million people to the brink of economic collapse. Although progress made in recent reconciliation talks has led to Western donors to gradually resume development aid, the road back to democracy promises to be a rocky one.

The political upheavals began after dissident army officers took power in what was regarded by the international community as a coup d’état. Officially, President Ravalomanana stepped down following violent street protests led by opposition leader Andry Rajoelina – a self-made dairy tycoon – and handed power to the military which in turn transferred its authority to Rajoelina. This prompted Rajoelina to declare himself as president of the “High Transitional Authority” (HAT) and consolidate a tight grip on the country’s politics. Ravalomanana, by contrast, fled into self-imposed exile in South Africa and was prevented twice from returning to Madagascar where he was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment for allegedly ordering the killing of protestors.

Egypt Holds Its Breath

Egypt's president-elect Mohammed Morsi at Tahrir Square
Egypt's president-elect Mohammed Morsi at Tahrir Square. Photo: Bora S. Kamel/flickr.

CAIRO – “You are the authority, above any other authority. You are the protectors, whoever seeks protection away from you is a fool…and the army and the police are hearing me,” said Egypt’s president-elect, Mohamed Morsi, to hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Square. A man imprisoned following the “Friday of Rage” (January 28, 2011) took the presidential oath in Tahrir on a “Friday of Power Transfer” (June 29, 2012). But he almost did not.

Ten days earlier, on June 19, I was with a group of former Egyptian MPs in Tahrir Square. One received a phone call informing him that a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader was coming to announce that the group was being blackmailed: either accept the constitutional addendum decreed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which practically eviscerated the presidency, or the presidential election’s outcome would not be decided in the Brothers’ favor. An hour later, the senior figure had not shown up. “The talks were about to collapse, but they resumed,” said the former MP. “Hold your breath.”


Grzegorz Ekiert on the Insignificance of Communist Legacies

Soviet Union Administrative Divisions 1989. Map: Wikimedia

Grzegorz Ekiert from Harvard University visited the CSS on Tuesday, 29 November 2011 and held a seminar on the question: “Do communist legacies matter?”  In short, Mr. Ekiert’s answer was “not very much.” But this was not his main point. Instead, he focused on what this means for conventional approaches to understanding the social world.

In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, many political scientists thought that formerly communist countries would have a bumpy road ahead with respect to democratization. After all, the communist system had infringed on most features of people’s lives. For outsiders at least, this made it hard to believe that several decades of communist rule had not changed the respective societies profoundly. As we now know, however, many Central and Eastern European countries, such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania democratized relatively painlessly and joined the European Union within a few years. In some places, transitions to democracy went so smoothly, and communist legacies seem to have mattered so little, that a number of analysts have started to question whether it still makes sense to focus on these legacies.

One of these thinkers is Mr Ekiert. He argues that previous approaches to explaining post-communist transitions have failed, and that it is time to look for alternatives. That was why he began to think about the relationship between continuity and change in history. Is it possible, he asks, that political scientists have, in recent decades, too narrowly focused on change at the expense of continuity? Could it be  that there are “deep historical continuities” at work – continuities so powerful and long-lasting that the conventional frameworks of political science fail to explain them?