ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar (AP) — Residents of the island nation of Madagascar voted Friday in a presidential election they hope will restore security, improve lives and mark the end of political and economic turmoil brought about by a 2009 coup.
Voter turnout increased by the afternoon after a slow start in the morning as residents chose to go to work instead of the polls. At the start of the vote, only 50 voters in line at a public junior school on the outskirts of Antananarivo, the capital.
Emilienne Ravaonasolo, 65, said she hoped the vote would help better the lives of the people in Madagascar.
"Hopefully the person I vote for will have the experience to restore security and improve the lives of the people," she said.
United Nations officials said polling was "going well."
Fatma Samoura, a representative of the U.N. Development Program in Madagascar said "People are calm, they understand the importance of this election."
Government officials have declared Friday a holiday to allow voters to cast their ballots. But in a nation with high levels of poverty and a wage of a $1.10 a day, most people continued work instead of voting.
Goods were carted in ox-drawn carts past the polling booths. Women at a river near a station did laundry, and local markets selling chicken and building materials remained open.
"Here in Madagascar, if you don't work, you don't eat," a resident said.
Madagascar, off Africa's east coast on the Indian Ocean, plunged into turmoil after current President Andry Rajoelina, a former disc jockey and mayor of the capital Antananarivo, seized power from ousted President Marc Ravalomanana with the help of the military in 2009.
Rajoelina told reporters after casting his vote in Antananarivo, that it was time Madagascar "returned to the constitutional order."
"The crisis has lasted too long...we feel the need of the Malagasy to fulfill their duty," he said.
Rajoelina allayed fears of a repeat of the 2009 coup saying "the results come from the choice of the people, we must accept it."
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.
The two front-runners are backed by rivals Rajoelina and Ravalomanana. Former finance minister Hery Rajaonarimampianina has been endorsed by Rajoelina and medical doctor Robinson Jean Louis is Ravalomanana's candidate.
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 electoral body says more than 7.8 million eligible voters will cast their ballots at 20,000 polling stations.
Poverty is a serious problem in Madagascar. Half of the nation's children under five are severely malnourished and 1.5 million children are not in school, according to the U.N.
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.
Associated Press photographer Schalk Van Zuydam in Antananarivo, Madagascar and writer Gillian Gotora in Johannesburg contributed to this report.