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Madagascar preps for election/concert/party

I keep a bag packed for Africa.

Not being kept waiting, the continent can be generous.

With 30 minutes' notice, I once joined a flight carrying a dead president's body home.

Being able to grab the bag and run has also got me out of some tight spots.

It started very light: quick-dry clothes, toiletries, mosquito repellent.

I'm a malaria bore since it nearly killed me 20 years ago.

The bag has become heavier with experience.

Tape recorder since I started radio work. More than one phone, because in many countries one network does not talk to the other.

Madagascar has added its bulk: a kidney belt and ear plugs.

The Malagasy words for road and the law are identical, "lalane" save for an accent on the second 'a' in the latter case.

So whatever you might think about a country paying for the aftermath of a coup d'etat four years ago, I can assure you, the Malagasy people have more regard for the law than their roads.

Atrocious doesn't cover the condition of them, particularly in the rainy season when they become raging streams.

A 450 km journey on a national road takes 10 hours.

I've seen people inside million-rand-plus four by fours wince at the beating they're taking.

Since much of the travelling one does here involves moving along the cobbled roads to remote polling stations, a kidney belt is a no-brainer.

Before going to exercise their democratic duty at those stations, Malagasy people have a unique style of campaigning.

Their mass gatherings are not so much rallies as music festivals. Parties use their free TV times to advertise their artist line up at their candidates' appearances rather than spelling out their political platforms.

Sitting at his desk beneath a framed, formal colour picture of Andry Rajoelina, Fianarantsoa police commissioner Stephan Ramiandrisoa sports a Miami Heat t-shirt and tells us he has not been home in two days to get his uniform.

He says they have made some adjustments to security arrangements put in place for the first round of voting in October. If anything, things have been quieter this time.

He has a plain-clothed unit moving among the population informing him of gatherings, meetings and developments.

Both presidential candidates, Jean Louis Robinson and Hery Rajoanarimampianina, mercifully shortened to Hery Vaovao, have visited Fianarantsoa, which has the second highest number of registered voters on the island.

Much of our interview is drowned out by the cacophony at the stadium across the road where parliamentary candidates have gathered at least 2,000 people for a concert-cum-rally.

I'm from the first really noisy generation and the heavy metal known as Madagascar political is too rich for my blood.

Do the people not want to debate the issues? You may well ask.

This election is not about the need to repair roads or get children into school or any of the burning matters picking at the fabric of society on the world's fourth biggest island.

It is about the process itself.

If Madagascar can peacefully elect a president, it will end the constitutional imbroglio created by the 2009 coup that also dried up investment and foreign aid.

The people need to do this first and then possibly vote later on the issues.

Civil society representatives I've spoken to here say they are concerned at the lack of voter education, choking off the election questions asked in most democracies.

They say votes are being bought for 1,000 Ariari, which is less than five rand.

Candidates who believe deafening music is not enough, and can afford it, attract voters with food parcels, t-shirts and skirt lengths of colourful fabric bearing their election poster pictures.

Voters I have spoken to are adamant they're not fools.

"Take the goodies now" they say and mark their ballot papers.

There's nothing more they can do at this stage.

The devil will be in the detail, for everyone, down the line.