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The Republic of Madagascar is an island nation located in the Indian Ocean off the southeastern coast of Africa. The nation comprises the island of Madagascar, which at 226,658 square miles, is classified as the fourth-largest island in the world, as well as numerous smaller peripheral islands, the largest of which include Nosy Be and Nosy Boraha (Île Sainte-Marie). Until the late 18th century, the island of Madagascar was populated by a fragmented assortment of shifting village and ethnic alliances and kingdoms of varying sizes. Beginning in the early 19th century, however, the majority of the island was united and ruled by a series of Merina nobles (andriana) as the Kingdom of Madagascar until the island was conquered and absorbed into the French colonial empire from 1896 to 1960, when the current Republic of Madagascar became independent. The autonomous state of Madagascar has since passed through four major constitutional periods, including a post-colonial First Republic under President Philibert Tsiranana (1960-1972), a Soviet-style socialist Second Republic under Admiral Didier Ratsiraka (1975-1991), and a democratic Third Republic under successive presidents Albert Zafy, Didier Ratsiraka and Marc Ravalomanana (1992-2009). Following a referendum on November 17, 2010, Madagascar has entered its Fourth Republic, wherein the nation is officially governed as a constitutional democracy from its capital at Antananarivo by an elected president who serves a renewable five-year term and is supported by the prime minister he nominates. However, the nation continues to be managed by an unelected caretaker government known as the High Transitional Authority (HAT) which seized power following the 2009 popular uprising led by HAT president Andry Rajoelina, currently the youngest head of state in Africa. The international community largely views the current administration as illegitimate and has widely characterized Rajoelina's seizure of power as a coup d'état.
In 2010 the population of Madagascar was estimated at around twenty million, 85% of whom live on less than two dollars per day. Ecotourism, agriculture, expansion of international trade and greater investments in education, health and private enterprise are key elements of Madagascar's development strategy. Under Ravalomanana, these investments produced substantive economic growth but the benefits were not evenly spread throughout the population, producing tensions over the increasing cost of living and declining living standards among the poor and some segments of the middle class. Current and future generations in Madagascar are faced with the challenge of striking a balance between economic growth, equitable development and natural conservation.
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