Madagascar opposition heads for election victory

ANTANANARIVO (Reuter) - The leader of the opposition, Albert Zafy, took an unbeatable lead yesterday in Madagascar's presidential election, ending 17 years of virtual dictatorship by the one- time socialist, Didier Ratsiraka.

Results from 11,666 of the nation's 14,140 polling stations showed that Mr Zafy, leader of a popular uprising against Mr Ratsiraka, had almost 70 per cent of the vote against just over 30 per cent for his opponent. The poll, adjudged free and fair by about 100 foreign observers, amounted to a resounding vote of no-confidence in Mr Ratsiraka and climaxed two years of often violent opposition to his authoritarian rule.

Mr Ratsiraka, 55, has made no public statement since the poll. He has stayed in his presidential palace on the outskirts of the capital, where at least 31 people were killed by his guards during demonstrations in August 1991. Mr Ratsiraka, taciturn and aloof in recent weeks, has pledged publicly to step down quietly if voted out of office. He is expected to hand over power when the final votes are counted later this month.

The vote gives Mr Zafy - a mild-mannered, French-trained professor of surgery - the task of living up to expectations that the lives of millions of impoverished people will be quickly transformed, diplomats said.

'Winning the election was the easy part. The hard part starts now,' said one foreign envoy who witnessed the demonstrations, strikes and protests that forced Mr Ratsiraka to cede power to a transitional government and allow the first truly democratic elections the country has known.

The election formally ends Mr Ratsiraka's tenure but real power will be devolved to a national assembly and a prime minister to be elected in the final phase of the democratisation process later this year. Mr Zafy told reporters last week his role was that of a custodian of the new constitution, and he acknowledged that substantial change would have to await the outcome of legislative elections due in April or May.

Malagasy politicians say there is already manoeuvring within Mr Zafy's Active Forces party for the post of prime minister, and that the group, united against Mr Ratsiraka, is divided over future policy. The party has already been in touch with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank on the resumption of a lapsed structural adjustment programme to restore economic growth after two years of turmoil.

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