The written history of Madagascar began in the seventh century A.D.,
when Arabs established trading posts along the northwest coast. European
contact began in the 1500s, when Portuguese sea captain Diego Dias sighted
the island after his ship became separated from a fleet bound for India.
In the late 17th century, the French established trading posts along the
east coast. From about 1774 to 1824, it was a favorite haunt for pirates,
including Americans, one of whom brought Malagasy rice to South Carolina.
Beginning in the 1790s, Merina rulers succeeded in establishing hegemony
over the major part of the island, including the coast. In 1817, the Merina
ruler and the British governor of Mauritius concluded a treaty abolishing
the slave trade, which had been important in Madagascar's economy. In return,
the island received British military and financial assistance. British
influence remained strong for several decades, during which the Merina
court was converted to Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, and Anglicanism.
The British accepted the imposition of a French protectorate over Madagascar
in 1885 in return for eventual control over Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania)
and as part of an overall definition of spheres of influence in the area.
Absolute French control over Madagascar was established by military force
in 1895-96, and the Merina monarchy was abolished.
Malagasy troops fought in France, Morocco, and Syria during World War
I. After France fell to the Germans, the Vichy government administered
Madagascar. British troops occupied the strategic island in 1942 to preclude
its seizure by the Japanese. The Free French received the island from the
United Kingdom in 1943.
In 1947, with French prestige at low ebb, a nationalist uprising was
suppressed after several months of bitter fighting. The French subsequently
established reformed institutions in 1956 under the Loi Cadre (Overseas
Reform Act), and Madagascar moved peacefully toward independence. The Malagasy
Republic was proclaimed on October 14, 1958, as an autonomous state within
the French Community. A period of provisional government ended with the
adoption of a constitution in 1959 and full independence on June 26, 1960.
Madagascar's first President, Philibert Tsiranana, was elected when
his Social Democratic Party gained power at independence in 1960 and was
reelected without opposition in March 1972. However, he resigned only 2
months later in response to massive antigovernment demonstrations. The
unrest continued, and Tsiranana's successor, Gen. Gabriel Ramanantsoa,
resigned on February 5, 1975, handing over executive power to Lt. Col.
Richard Ratsimandrava, who was assassinated 6 days later. A provisional
military directorate then ruled until a new government was formed in June
1975, under Didier Ratsiraka .
During the 16 subsequent years of President Ratsiraka's rule, Madagascar
continued under a government committed to revolutionary socialism based
on the 1975 Constitution establishing a highly centralized state. National
elections in 1982 and 1989 returned Ratsiraka for a second and third 7-year
presidential term. For much of this period, only limited and restrained
political opposition was tolerated, with no direct criticism of the president
permitted in the press.
With an easing of restrictions on political expression, beginning in
the late 1980s, the Ratsiraka regime came under increasing pressure to
make fundamental changes. In response to a deteriorating economy, Ratsiraka
relaxed socialist economic policies and instituted some liberal, private-sector
reforms. These, along with political reforms like the elimination of press
censorship in 1989 and the formation of more political parties in 1990,
were insufficient to placate a growing opposition movement known as Hery
Velona or "Active Forces." A number of already existing political parties
and their leaders, among them Albert Zafy and Rakotoniaina Manandafy, anchored
this movement which was especially strong in Antananarivo and the surrounding
In response to largely peaceful mass demonstrations and crippling general
strikes, Ratsiraka replaced his prime minister in August 1991 but suffered
an irreparable setback soon thereafter when his troops fired on peaceful
demonstrators marching on his suburban palace, killing more than 30.
In an increasingly weakened position, Ratsiraka acceded to negotiations
on the formation of a transitional government. The resulting "Panorama
Convention" of October 31, 1991, stripped Ratsiraka of nearly all of his
powers, created interim institutions, and set an 18-month timetable for
completing a transition to a new form of constitutional government. The
High Constitutional Court was retained as the ultimate judicial arbiter
of the process.
In March 1992, a widely representative National Forum organized by the
Malagasy Christian Council of Churches (FFKM) drafted a new Constitution.
Troops guarding the proceedings clashed with pro-Ratsiraka "federalists"
who tried to disrupt the forum in protest of draft constitutional provisions
preventing the incumbent president from running again. The text of the
new Constitution was put to a nationwide referendum in August 1992 and
approved by a wide margin, despite efforts by federalists to disrupt balloting
in several coastal areas.
Presidential elections were held on November 25, 1992, after the High
Constitutional Court had ruled, over active forces objections, that Ratsiraka
could become a candidate. Runoff elections were held in February 1993,
and the leader of the Hery Velona movement, Albert Zafy, defeated Ratsiraka.
Zafy was sworn in as President on March 27, 1993. After President Zafy's
impeachment by the National Assembly in 1996 and the short quasi-presidency
of Norbert Ratsirahonana, the 1997 elections once again pitted Zafy and
Ratsiraka, with Ratsiraka this time emerging victorious. A National Assembly
dominated by members of President Ratsiraka'a political party AREMA subsequently
passed the 1998 Constitution, which considerably strengthened the presidency.
In December 2001, a presidential election was held in which both major
candidates claimed victory. The Ministry of the Interior declared incumbent
Ratsiraka of the AREMA party victorious. Marc Ravalomanana contested the
results and claimed victory. A political crisis followed in which Ratsiraka
supporters cut major transport routes from the primary port city to the
capital city, a stronghold of Ravalomanana support. Sporadic violence and
considerable economic disruption continued until July 2002 when Ratsiraka
and several of his prominent supporters fled to exile in France. In addition
to political differences, ethnic differences played a role in the crisis
and continue to play a role in politics. Ratsiraka is from the Betsimisarka
tribe of Toamasina. Ravalomanana comes from the Merina tribe of Antananarivo.
After the end of the 2002 political crisis, President Ravalomanana began
many reform projects, forcefully advocating "rapid and durable development"
and the launching of a battle against corruption. December 2002 legislative
elections gave his newly formed TIM (Tiako-i-Madagasikara--I Love Madagascar)
Party a commanding majority in the National Assembly. In November 2003
municipal elections for mayors were held in two rounds (one rural, one
urban). Results were still being counted at the time of this writing. The
first phase of the November 2003 elections was held in a calm, workman-like
atmosphere that bespeaks the Ravalomanana' government's growing mastery
of the intricacies of election organization on a national scale.
Following the crisis of 2002, the President replaced provincial governors
with appointed PDSs (Presidents des Delegations Speciales). Plans to decentralize
governmental powers are still in process, and some powers are, indeed,
being devolved to local and provincial levels.