The tiny kingdom of Swaziland in southern Africa is getting ready for a national parliamentary election this year, amid expectations that the outcome will be a fraud on democracy.
All political parties are banned in the kingdom where King Mswati III is generally considered to be the last absolute monarch in sub-Saharan Africa.
Elections are held every five years. At the last vote in 2008, the Commonwealth Election Team, which has global experience monitoring national elections, declared that the voting was so badly flawed Swaziland needed to rewrite its constitution, if it ever wanted to “ensure that Swaziland’s commitment to political pluralism is unequivocal”.
In a report on the elections it said: “It is widely accepted internationally that democracy includes the right of individuals to associate with and support the political party of their choice.”
It added: “Yet in practice this right currently does not exist.”
The Pan-African Parliament (PAP) also denounced the poll because political parties were not allowed to take part.
Mary Mugyenyi, the head of the PAP mission, said at the time: “The non-participation of political parties makes these elections extraordinary from any others but we hope with time things will change.”
The European Union declined even to send a delegation to monitor the election, declaring that it could not be free and fair if political parties were banned. In 2008 Peter Beck Christiansen, the EU Ambassador to Swaziland, told a press conference there were, “shortcomings in the kingdom’s democracy”.
He said: “It is noted that the Prime Minister is not elected by Parliament.” He added: “The same applies to Cabinet Ministers, they’re not appointed by Cabinet.”
He also said: “It’s clear that the [Swazi] constitution has some shortcomings.”
Following the election, the International Commission of Jurists criticised the Swaziland Supreme Court for siding with the Swaziland state and confirming a constitutional right to ban political parties in the kingdom.
In January 2012, Chief Mgwagwa Gamedze, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs in the Swaziland Government, confirmed that there would be no changes from previous years to the way the national elections would be run and political parties would remain banned.
King Mswati’s supporters dismiss criticisms that the kingdom is un-democratic, saying Swaziland has a “unique” democracy. This is built on a system of 55 Tinkhundla (local councils) and all candidates for election are required to stand as individuals and if elected personally represent the ordinary people in their local constituencies.
There are two chambers of parliament, the House of Assembly and the Senate. Of the 65 members of the House, 10 are chosen by King Mswati and 55 are elected by the people. In the Senate, King Mswati chooses 20 of the 30 places. The other 10 are chosen by members of the House of Assembly. None are elected by the people.
Despite, the claims that ordinary Swazi have representation in parliament, King Mswati is in complete control of his kingdom. Last August, at the Sibaya People’s Parliament (a quaint idea of democracy where people turn up at a cattle byre and voice their opinions on topics of concern to them) speakers overwhelmingly called on the government to resign, citing its inability to control an economy spiralling out of control as a major reason.
In October, the House of Assembly passed a vote of no-confidence in the prime minister and cabinet. In such circumstances the constitution requires the monarch to sack the government (he has no discretion in the matter), but King Mswati ignored this and put pressure on the House to re-run the vote, this time ensuring that it did not have the required majority to pass. Members of the House did as they were told and the government continued in office.
A number of prodemocracy groups have called for a boycott of this year’s election. These include the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) and the Swaziland United Democratic Front, which describes the Swazi system of governance as “illegitimate, unpopular and a mockery to democracy”.
King Mswati has yet to set a date for the election. He has sole say over its timing. In 2008 he kept people waiting for most of the year before declaring the poll would be in September, leaving only three days for people to declare their candidacy and there was no voter’s roll to determine who was eligible to vote.
While we await the election, the king continues to live a lavish lifestyle. He has 13 palaces, one for each of his wives, and owns fleets of BMW and Mercedes Benz cars and a private jet aircraft. Forbes magazine estimated that he has a personal fortune of US$100 million. Meanwhile, seven in ten of the 1 million population of Swaziland live in abject poverty, earning less than US$2 a day. Swaziland also has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world.
(This article first appeared in Pambazuka News 24 January 2013 Issue 614)