Didier Ratsiraka, the 'Red Admiral', back in Madagascar
Former president Didier Ratsiraka who returned to Madagascar on Thursday from nine years of exile in France was once dubbed the "Red Admiral" due to his naval past and socialist policies.
The 75-year-old first took power in 1975, when as a young naval officer steeped in socialist revolutionary ideals, he was elected president.
His 21-year reign was interrupted from 1991 to 1996 by a popular movement that forced him to resign, leading to his first exile in France.
Returning to Madagascar, he was re-elected after defeating rival Albert Zafy.
Ratsiraka shrugged off his "Red Admiral" nickname in foreign media -- by shifting towards greater economic liberalism.
But he faced a growing rival, Antananarivo mayor and successful entrepreneur Marc Ravalomanana, whose supporters took to the streets after the first round of presidential elections in December 2001.
Claiming victory in the first round, Ravalomanana refused to organise a second round of voting, while Ratsiraka declined to concede defeat, plunging the country into seven months of violence and chaos.
The impasse split the vast island nation in two -- with two capitals, two governments, and a divided army -- until Ravalomanana was officially proclaimed president in 2002.
Until his return on Thursday, Ratsiraka lived in a Paris suburb.
With his country mired in a political paralysis triggered by a 2009 army-backed coup that brought Andry Rajoelina -- also a former Antananarivo mayor -- to power, Ratsiraka called for reconciliation with political leaders.
His return, welcomed by Rajoelina, could boost efforts to resolve the country's crisis.
In 2003 after fleeing for the second time to exile, Ratsiraka was sentenced in absentia to hard labour, five years in jail for threatening state security and 10 years for embezzling public funds.
Hailing from Madagascar's east-central coast, Ratsiraka has strong connections throughout the country, but many of his supporters have chosen to participate in the transition regime.
On Thursday, he was welcomed by hundreds of supporters, including those of former rivals Ravalomanana and Zafy himself in a show of solidarity.
© 2011 AFP