THE placard is grim: a hand smeared in blood set inside a red circle, with the words: “Enough, no more killings; Rajao, get out.” Since police shot and killed two people on April 21st at an opposition rally in Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital, there has been a steady stream of anti-government demonstrations.

The trouble started with a new law that would have prevented leading opposition candidates from contesting elections scheduled for November. Among those barred were two former presidents: Marc Ravalomanana, who was ousted in a coup in 2009; and Andry Rajoelina, who had mounted the coup with the help of the army and ruled Africa’s biggest island until democracy was restored in 2013.

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Even the constitutional court’s ruling on May 3rd that struck out parts of the electoral law, including those that would have prevented Mr Ravalomanana and Mr Rajoelina from running, has failed to placate the opposition. It is demanding the resignation of Hery Rajaonarimampianina, the current president, who has made as little progress in curbing rampant corruption as his two predecessors. He, in turn, says the protesters are attempting a coup. Western and African diplomats are scrambling to calm things down. Elections, they concede, are no longer certain to happen this year.

The deadlock is one that Madagascar can ill afford. It is one of the few countries in the world that became poorer (when measured by income per person) between 1960 and 2010. And the crisis is frustratingly familiar. Madagascar has suffered several coups and bouts of violent instability. This time, at least, the army is standing aside. A statement signed by the heads of the army and police, and read out by the defence minister, called on party leaders to resolve their differences.

That is easier said than done. The opposition has flatly refused to negotiate through foreign mediators, especially those from the Southern African Development Community, a regional club of 15 countries. It has dispatched Joachim Chissano, a former president of Mozambique, to mediate. But many Malagasy see him as the architect of the reviled “ni ni” (“neither nor”) deal under which Mr Ravalomanana and Mr Rajoelina were barred from standing for election in 2013, clearing the way for Mr Rajaonarimampianina. To break the cycle, the country badly needs free—and freely contested—elections.