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The Malagasy are of mixed Malayo-Indonesian and African-Arab ancestry. Settled originally around the 10th Century by Borneo mariners who arrived in outrigger canoes, the island was first claimed by the Portuguese early in the 16th Century. They named it Madagascar after a reference to such an island in the writings of Marco Polo. After destroying existing Arab settlements on the island, the Portuguese were displaced by the French. Towards the end of the 19th Century the island was formally handed over to France by the British in return for a free hand in Egypt and Zanzibar. After sev eral uprisings, a referendum called by France in 1958 showed Madagascans overwhelmingly in favor of independence within the French community. In 1959, pro-French Philibert Tsiranana became the first president. He was ousted in May 1973 in an army coup led by Maj. Gen. Gabriel Ramantsoa. Admiral Didier Ratsiraka, who was named president in June 1975, nationalized banks, insurance companies, shipping companies, the oil refinery and a leading foreign trading company. In response to riots following his reelection in 1989 under suspicious circumstances, Pres. Ratsiraka agreed to share power with Albert Zafy. In the 1993 election Zafy won the presidency only to be impeached by parliament for abusing his constitutional powers during an economic crisis. He was defeated in the 1996 presidential election by Ratsiraka with a narrow margin. Seeking reelection in December 2001, Ratsiraka was defeated by Marc Ravalomanana who drew 51.5% of the overall vote against his 35.9%. Ratsiraka, however, refused to step down, claiming that his opponent did not score an outright majority. In June 2002, after months of stalemate and violence between supporters of the two contestants the High Constitutional Court declared Ravalomanana the winner. In December 2006, Ravalomanana was re-elected with 54.80 percent of the vote.

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