Wealthy Madagascar candidates woo skeptical voters trapped by poverty

FILE PHOTO: Madagascar's outgoing president Andry Rajoelina addresses guests during the handover ceremony at Iavoloha Presidential Palace in the capital Antananarivo, January 24, 2014. REUTERS/John Friedrich Rabenandro/File Photo (Reuters)

By Lovasoa Rabary ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) - No matter who wins Madagascar's presidential election next week, Soloniaina Rakotomamonjy wants the victor to bring jobs to a country shackled by poverty despite immense resource wealth. In an irony in one of Africa's poorest countries, the result of the first round of voting could hinge in part on which of the three front-runners -- all wealthy men -- has spent the most money campaigning for the Nov. 7 contest. Rakotomamonjy, 20, does odd jobs in construction and works at a roadside open-air restaurant when the owner has enough business to hire extra staff. He will vote in the Indian Ocean island nation's election on Wednesday, he says, for the first time in his life because he wants to participate and "make the choice like everyone else". Like many other young Malagasy, he says, he wants a leader who "can change the lives of young people" by creating jobs. He is not holding his breath. "I just have to keep working as many jobs as I can find in order to get by," he said, heading back to the building site where he had already been at work for four hours by 8 a.m. one morning this week. In the run-up to the poll the three leading candidates have toured the country making electoral promises that many voters don't expect them to keep: The three are President Hery Rajaonarimampianina and his two main challengers, both former heads of state themselves: Marc Ravalomanana and Andry Rajoelina. Handing out sacks of rice and t-shirts, the top candidates have hired helicopters for many thousands of dollars a day to sidestep the problem of rundown roads across the country, famed for its exotic wildlife and luxury vanilla spice. HEAVY CAMPAIGN SPENDING ALLOWED Though relative political stability since a 2013 election has enabled the economy to rebound, the country of 25 million people remains among Africa's poorest. About 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day. Unemployment is under two percent, official statistics show, but a 2015 government study found that "disguised unemployment" was at least 20 percent and underemployment was rampant. Though there are 36 candidates on the ballot, only two could advance to a possible run-off on Dec. 19. The three front-runners are wealthy and have been repeatedly accused by local civil society groups of having used their time in office to enrich themselves. The three deny the allegations. Ravalomanana, toppled in a 2009 coup, was criticized while in office for not tackling corruption. Rajoelina, the man who ousted him, was accused by conservation groups of profiting from illegal plundering of natural resources. The current president is under fire from civil society groups for signing a fisheries agreement in September with Chinese firms -- the deal is opaque, civil society groups say, and will rob local fisherman of their livelihoods. On the campaign trail all three men pledged to accelerate the recovery of the economy, forecast by the IMF to grow at more than five percent this year, the highest rate in a decade. Since a peaceful election in 2013, investors and donor governments re-engaged following a four-year freeze after the coup. Heavy spending on campaigning is permitted -- no national laws cap it -- and some analysts have predicted the results of the first round of the election will hinge on cash, not issues. Transparency International tried to get candidates to fill out a public questionnaire on how much they had spent on their campaign. Just one of the 36 people on the ballot -- a pop star who goes by the nickname Dama -- responded, saying he had spent around two billion ariary (about $565,000) in the one-month official campaign period that ends on Monday. One person commented on Transparency International's Madagascar Facebook page: "If he has spent this much on his campaign, I wonder how much the others have spent on theirs." One out of every two children is stunted by malnutrition according to the World Food Programme. The U.N. agency says around 1.2 million people need food aid in the southern part of the country, where the frequency of droughts has increased over the past decade, pushing farmers deeper into poverty. In an interview with Reuters this week as the campaign period wrapped up, the incumbent Rajaonarimampianina said economic growth would soar into the double digits, enabling the creation of millions of jobs, if he wins a second term: "I've developed a vision of transformation and growth of Madagascar ... which is a vision of emergence and rebirth." (Reporting by Lovasoa RabaryAdditional reporting by Hereward Holland in Nairobi, Writing by Maggie Fick, Editing by William Maclean)