Madagascar will hold elections on Friday in an effort to end political tensions that erupted in a 2009 coup and lift the aid-dependent country out of poverty.
The island nation, off Africa's east coast in the Indian Ocean, plunged into turmoil after Andry Rajoelina, a former disc jockey and mayor of the capital Antananarivo, seized power with the help of the military. Ousted President Marc Ravalomanana went into exile in South Africa.
The coup resulted in the suspension of much-needed foreign aid. Madagascar was suspended from the African Union and the 15-nation Southern African Development Community, or SADC, until a constitutionally elected government was restored.
With 33 candidates running in the election, it could prove difficult for a clear winner to emerge in the first round. If none of the candidates garners more than 50 percent of the votes, the two top candidates will compete in a runoff scheduled for Dec. 20.
Nine candidates, including three key politicians, were barred from taking part in the polls as part of a plan to resolve the political crisis. Former presidents Rajoelina and Didier Ratsiraka and former president Ravalomanana's wife, Lalao, were excluded for failing to comply with the country's electoral laws.
The two front-runners are backed by Rajoelina and Ravalomanana. Former finance minister Hery Rajaonarimampianina has been endorsed by Rajoelina and medical doctor Robinson Jean Louis is Ravalomanana's candidate.
The nation's electoral body says more than 7.8 million eligible voters will cast their ballots Friday at 20,000 polling stations across the nation.
Former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano, the regional mediator from SADC, urged voters to "come out in their numbers to exercise their democratic right to freely and peacefully vote for the leader of their choice."
"This is a very important day in the history of Madagascar," Chissano said Thursday.
The United States-based Carter Center said Thursday it has partnered with a local rights group, the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, to be part of the 700 international observers monitoring the polls.
The election results will be announced within 10 days after the voting.
Friday's vote will bring hope to the 22 million islanders who have endured years of spiraling poverty since the 2009 coup, said Steven Lauwerier, UNICEF's representative in Madagascar. He said there is a sense of hope and relief in Madagscar ahead of the election.
"They want a kind of change," said he said at a news conference in Johannesburg this week.
Tourism in the island nation has taken a hit this year, partly because of fears of unrest during the election campaign. The deaths of two tourists at the hands of a mob on a northern tourist island early this month also had a negative impact. Countries issued travel warnings after the attacks and visitors stopped coming.
The killings of the tourists show "a distrust in the justice system," Lauwerier said.
Poverty is a serious problem in Madagascar. The average daily salary in rural areas is the equivalent of $1.10, and a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of rice costs 75 cents, said Maherisoa Rakotonirainy, a representative of the U.N. World Food Program in Madagascar. That leaves families struggling to pay for cooking oil and other staples, as well as transport, education and other necessities.
Half of the country's children less than five years old suffer from chronic malnutrition and more than 1.5 million children are not in school, according to the U.N. Madagascar has also suffered from recurrent cyclones that have devastated parts of the country.
Gotora contributed to this report from Johannesburg.