Antananarivo: Poverty-wracked Madagascar began voting on Friday in long-delayed presidential elections meant to restore democracy and pull the country out of the crisis it plunged into after a 2009 coup.
With 33 candidates on the ballot and no clear favourite, chances of a first-round winner looked slim, raising the possibility of a run-off in eight weeks` time.
Some of the main political players -- including strongman Andry Rajoelina and the man he toppled in March 2009, Marc Ravalomanana -- have been barred from running to prevent their long-standing political wrangling from jeopardising the vote.
The polls should produce a new government to replace the post-coup transitional authority negotiated by regional mediators.
The seizure of power by former radio DJ Rajoelina, who was then mayor of the capital Antananarivo, plunged the country into a political, social and economic quagmire.
Donors shunned their former darling, investors stayed away and poverty increased to 92 percent of the population -- the worst level in any country outside war zones, according to the World Bank.
Since independence from France in 1960, the Indian Ocean island nation of 22.3 million people has lurched from one crisis to another.
During the latest political deadlock public finances have eroded, while fraud and corruption have increased. Roads are deteriorating, prostitution -- of both adults and children -- is on the rise.
But some hope a stable government will move the vanilla-rich island towards recovery.
"Madagascar is in the starting blocks to develop," said businessman Alain Razafindrabe.
Campaigning went peacefully, officially ending Thursday morning. Former finance minister Hery Rajaonarimampianina, seen as Rajoelina`s preferred candidate, had the last word in a spectacular televised speech.
"Hery must continue to complete the expectations raised in 2009," said Tiana Rabarisona, one of his supporters. After several failed attempts to return home from South Africa ahead of the elections, exiled Ravalomanana pushed his wife Lalao to run, but was blocked. His former health minister Jean-Louis Robinson is now in the race.
But it may not be over for the Ravalomananas: Robinson suggested one of the pair might become prime minister if he won.
Despite the number and variety of candidates -- including ex-parliamentary speakers, ministers, a conservationist and a rock singer -- analysts say only about six hopefuls have campaigned and are visible.
Voting opened at 6:00 am (0300 GMT) and closes 11 hours later at 20,000 polling stations scattered across the world`s fourth-largest island, which is slightly bigger than former colonial master France.
There are about 7.8 million eligible voters.
Early partial results are expected to start trickling in by Friday night.
Close to 6,000 observers, including 800 foreign monitors, will watch the polls amid worries about the electoral commission`s logistical capacity.
Concerns have been raised about the safety of ballot papers and boxes, which in some remote rural areas have been entrusted to village heads.
Distribution of voter identity cards is running behind schedule, forcing the electoral commission to declare that people without them should be allowed to vote if they can produce their ordinary ID cards.
For the first time voters will draw their marks on a single ballot, instead of multiple papers used in previous polls.
Regional bloc the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which brokered the peace deal and drew up the road map that has culminated in the election, urged the islanders to come out in their numbers to choose a new leader.
"This is a rare opportunity that cannot be left to chance," said former Mozambique president Joaquim Chissano, who has led mediation efforts since the coup.
But analyst Sofolo Randrianja from the University of Tamatave said the government has no capacity to organise "decent" elections because the "state is in complete decay".
If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a second round will be held on December 20, along with legislative polls.