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Lalao Ravalomanana: Madagascar’s ex first lady, an undaunted presidential candidate
When supporters of ousted president Marc Ravalomanana announced their intention on 14 April to present Lalao Ravalomanana, the former leader’s wife, as their candidate for the forthcoming presidential elections, the decision was met with scepticism amongst observers.
Electoral law requires presidential candidates to be resident in Madagascar for six months prior to their bid and Ravalomanana had only been back for a month since her return from four years of exile in South Africa.
But on 3 May, Madagascar’s Cour Electorale Spéciale approved her bid on the grounds that her situation in exile was not her own choice.
She had tried to return to Madagascar on a number of occasions but all her attempts (and those of her husband) were blocked by transitional leader Andry Rajoelina.
Rajoelina finally allowed Ravalomanana to come back to Madagascar on 13 March to visit her ill mother.
The terms of her return had been negotiated with the Southern African Development Community (Sadc), which has been mediating the crisis since 2011: Ravalomanana’s visit was to be for humanitarian reasons only, and she was forbidden from engaging in any political activity. It was clear she had little intention of complying.
Fast-forward a couple of months and she is now a favourite to win the 24 July polls.
“The name Ravalomanana really counts in Madagascar,” says Alexandre Denis Lahiniriko, professor of political history at the university of Antananarivo.
“She represents the Mouvance Ravalomanana, and that’s why she was chosen over other candidates. It has prevented the party from splitting, unlike the Rajoelina camp,” he says.
With 41 candidates, many of them virtually unknown, Ravalomanana represents familiarity with a breath of fresh air.
She could also benefit from the fragmentation of theMouvance Rajoelina, which has some seven candidates in the fray as well as Rajoelina himself.
His candidacy provoked outrage because his bid arrived after the official 28 April deadline. Former president Didier Ratsiraka is also in the running.
Amid calls from the international community for Rajoelina, Ravalomanana and Ratsiraka to withdraw, coupled with the suspension of donor funds, an electoral court in the country also postponed the polls from 24 June to 23 August.
Mamy Rakotoarivelo, leader of the Mouvance Ravalomanana, says that the choice of candidate was unanimous. “We think she best represents our movement and the vision we have for the country,” he says.
However, name and party support aside, she has no political experience, which raises the question of how much influence her husband will have behind the scenes if she is elected.
Rakotoarivelo says her husband’s role would be similar to that of principal advisor. “Considering his experience, I think it is natural that he will give her advice on certain aspects of the management of the country’s affairs,” he says.
But Lalao begs to differ. “I am my own person. I will be the president. It will be his turn to run the company,” she said in an interview with Reuters news agency in June. “It would be impossible for a married couple to run a country together,” she added.
Ravalomanana certainly isn’t new to positions of power. She set up Tiko – the family dairy business that became one of Madagascar’s largest private companies – with her husband and took over the reins when he became president.
She has charisma too: she is affectionately known as Neny (Mum) and is likely to play the emotional card of devoted family woman.
As one observer pointed out, any antipathy towards the Ravalomanana clan has always been directed at Marc, not her.
Some have questioned whether a woman can really be elected in Madagascar, a society that remains fairly conservative.
Madagascar has a rich history of charismatic female monarchs and there are plenty of women in parliament and government.
Observers expect the electoral campaign, now in full swing, to reveal whether she will just be a puppet for her powerful husband or a candidate in her own right●
1953 – Born Lalao Rakotonirainy in Antananarivo
1974 – Married Marc Ravalomanana
2009, February – Went into exile in South Africa when her husband was ousted as president
2013, 14 April – Submitted presidential bid, a month after returning to Madagascar