Because of its early separation from the main continental landmass as far back as 160 million years ago Madagascar was late to be settled by mankind. The first settlers are thought to have arrived about 2000 years ago and were of mixed Indonesian and African origin. Since then there have been a series of waves of mainly merchant classes from across the world who have settled the island including Chinese and Arab traders.
In 1500 A.D. Diogo Dias, a Portuguese explorer, is thought to have been the first European to land on the island and named it St. Lawrence. From that point there were waves of Portuguese, French, Dutch and British traders who attempted to settle the island but all were beaten off by the Malagasy people.
By the 1600s the east coast of the island was a haven for pirates, but elsewhere on the island a number of tribes or kingdoms were being formed, the most important of which was the Sakalava along the west coast which stretched from Tulear in the south to Diego Suarez in the north. These kingdoms became more established throughout the 17th Century.
By the early 1800s most of the island had been united under one king, Radama I, a Merina king who, with help from the British, managed to unite all but a part of the Sakalava kingdom. He brought Christianity to the island and also helped start an industrial revolution. Upon his death in 1828 he was replaced by his widow, Ranavalona I. She repudiated many of the treaties signed with the British and persecuted Christians; overall the next 33 years of her reign were known by many as “the time when the land was dark”.
In 1861 Queen Ranavalona I died and was succeeded by her son Prince Rakoto who became King Radama II. He only lasted two years and was assassinated in 1863 in a coup d’état instigated because he had re-opened the country to the world and re-instated many of the reforms that Radama I had put in place.
The widow of Radama II, Rabodo, was invited to take the throne and on 13th May 1863 was crowned Queen Rasoherina. She signed treaties with the British and French as well as the Americans but died five years later in 1868.
She was succeeded by her third husband, Rainilaiarivony, who was also prime minister and who was the key influence in the country until his death in 1896; he married the next three queens of Madagascar in succession. The final queen, Queen Ranavalona III (1883–1897), reneged on an earlier treaty with the French, the “Lambert Charter” which resulted in the French-Malagasy War between 1883 and 1896. The French eventually marched on the capital Antananarivo and took it by surprise. The French annexed the country and the Merina monarchy came to an end with the royal family being sent into exile in Algeria.
The French introduced a single government across the whole island. By 1918 there were the first signs of an uprising against French rule but it was to take until 1947 before a serious rebellion led by Jean Ralaimongo was crushed by the French with up to 80,000 Malagasy killed.
By 1956 the French has reformed a number of institutions and in 1958 the island became an autonomous state within the French Community. On 26th March 1960 France agreed to Madagascar achieving independence and the country became fully independent on 26th June 1960.
Philibert Tsiranana became its first President and appears to have created a peaceful and moderately prosperous economy. He was, however, an authoritarian and by the late 1960s his Social Democratic Party (PSD) was the only major political party on the island.
By 1972 the peace was unravelling and student protests resulted in Tsiranana dissolved parliament and appointed General Gabriel Ramanantsoa as prime minister before resigning as president.
In 1975, after the assassination of Colonel Richard Ratsimandrava who had been president for just six days, Didier Ratsiraka came to power in a coup and established a quasi-Marxist state. He nationalised many institutions, cut ties with France and created closer links with the Soviet Union.
As the economy went into decline in the 1980s a number of policies were reversed and the country once more built links with France and established a market-economy. In 1992, after nearly thirty years of one party rule, Ratsiraka adopted a democratic constitution which brought in multi-party elections.
In 1993 Ratsiraka was voted from power but his successor, Albert Zafy, was eventually impeached for continually breaching the constitution and in 1996 Ratsiraka was re-elected president of Madagascar. With turnout at less than 50% in the election it was almost inevitable that more trouble would ensue and so it did with opposition parties boycotting provincial elections in 2000.
In the 2001 election the opposition candidate, Marc Ravalomanana, won 51.46% of the vote and was elected president. Ratsiraka contested the result and tried to set up a rival government but after the High Constitutional Court ratified the result he went into exile in France.
Ravalomanana’s first term in office was noted for high growth of around 7% as well as major reforms to education and health. As a result he was re-elected in 2006 with 54.79% of the vote in the first round.
By 2009 there was trouble with the opposition and after a number of tense weeks in which the army fired on protesters and Andry Rajoelina, the mayor of the capital, Antananarivo, demanded Ravalomanana’s resignation. Once it became clear that he no longer had the support of the army Ravalomanana resigned in March 2009 and fled to Swaziland.
The army installed Andry Rajoelina as the new president but his elevation was not recognised by the international community. The African Union (AU) and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) both criticised the forced resignation of Ravalomanana.
Since then the international community has placed sanctions upon the island and the SADC has increased its pressure for a political solution. In 2012 Marc Ravalomanana agreed not to stand in any future election and in January 2013 Transitional President Andry Rajoelina also said that he would not stand leaving the opportunity for fresh elections.
The President is elected for a five-year term and is eligible to serve a second term.
The bicameral legislature consists of a National Assembly of 151 seats and a Senate of 33 seats. Two-thirds of the Senate seats are filled by regional assemblies whose members are elected by popular vote; the remaining one-third of the seats are appointed by the President. Both serve four year terms.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Madagascar at joint 145th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 26 (where 100 is least corrupt).