Swaziland will hold national elections on 21 September. But according to reports that examine the country’s last national elections in 2013 and many Swazis, Swaziland’s political system is undemocratic and only serves to keep its absolute monarch in power.
Organised Certainty, a new study published in July by journalist and former associate professor at the University of Swaziland Richard Rooney, concludes that Swaziland’s last national elections in 2013 were “not democratic” and that “the political system exists to keep the ruling absolute monarchy in power”.
According to Rooney, bribery, corruption and election blunders were widespread in 2013, women were banned from nomination for wearing trousers, Swaziland’s police and state forces clamped down on peaceful political and social dissent, media coverage in the Swazi media failed to report opposition views, and it took the Election and Boundaries Commission over three years to formally release the election results.
Voters in Swaziland will elect 59 of Swaziland’s 69 members of the country’s House of Assembly at national elections on 21 September. Absolute monarch King Mswati III picks the remaining ten, as well as most of the Senate, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. Political parties are barred from participating in the elections.
The king is above the law
“The lack of democracy in Swaziland is well documented”, Rooney writes in his report. Many other reports point to this fact, as well as to an increase in repression and human rights abuses towards those who advocate a boycott of the elections and campaign for multiparty democracy.
Elections in Swaziland have “increasingly become arenas for competition over patronage and not policy,” African non-governmental organisation the Institute for Security Studies wrote in a report before the last national elections 2013.
The Commonwealth Observer Mission Report, which sent over 400 international and local observers to monitor the 2013 elections, concluded that the election had showed “major democratic deficits”, amongst other things because “parliamentarians continue to have severely limited powers, and political parties continue to remain proscribed … there is considerable room for improving the democratic system”.
The European Union’s Election Experts Mission, which sent over 150 observers, said in their report that the elections showed that the Swazi state was unwilling to tackle “fundamental problems [with] the system of government and the respect for the principles of separation of power, rule of law and independence of the judiciary”.
These problems included that “the King has absolute power and is considered to be above the law” and that “a bill shall not become law unless the King has assented to it”, the Election Experts Mission concluded.
The latest annual Freedom in the World report from independent watchdog organisation Freedom House gives Swaziland its lowest score of seven in regard to political rights. The report concludes that, “political dissent and civic or labour activism are subject to harsh punishment under laws on sedition and other offenses. Those who criticise the monarchy can also face exclusion from traditional patronage systems”.
And Human Rights Watch concluded in their 2017 report that “Swaziland continued to repress political dissent and disregard human rights and rule of law in 2017”.
Many Swazis are becoming increasingly disaffected with their political system.
In a poll conducted in 2015 by pan-African independent research institute Afrobarometer, only a third of the population saw Swaziland’s political system as democratic and only 28 percent were fairly or very satisfied with how democracy works in Swaziland (down from 36 percent in 2013).
Another Afrobarometer poll from 2016 revealed Swaziland to be one of the 36 African countries polled that have seen the biggest positive change in favour of democracy in the previous five years. In July, another Afrobarometer poll found that less than four in ten Swazis approve of the job performance of Swaziland’s Prime Minister and Members of Parliament.
Current elections legitimise King’s rule
Political coordinator of the Swaziland United Democratic Front, Wandile Dludlu, is adamant that this year’s elections will in fact only serve to legitimise the power of Swaziland’s absolute monarch King Mswati III.
“The power to govern and to determine the destiny of Swaziland rests upon the King and therefore Mswati is always the victor in every election”, he says.
According to a report from Swaziland’s Elections and Boundaries Commission, 41 percent of the estimated 600,000 Swazis who were entitled to register voted in the 2013 elections (although the report chooses to conclude that 61 percent of the 414,704 voters who registered to vote actually did so). Less than the 47 percent who voted in 2008.
For this downward trajectory to change, Swaziland’s needs democratic reform says exiled editor of Swaziland News, Zweli Martin Dlamini.
“These elections are meaningless and nothing will change in the country for as long as absolute powers vests with the King. The voters will elect MPs who will be accountable to the King not to the people, and until we adopt democratic reforms, nothing will change”, Zweli Martin Dlamini concludes.
That many people register to vote simply shows that people are afraid not to, according to the president of the Swaziland Youth Congress, Bheki Dlamini.
“The Swazi elections do not allow any change in the distribution of political power. More and more people are aware of the uselessness of the elections, but because of fear of reprisals from the regime’s agents they still register to be part of the elections”, Bheki Dlamini says.
* Peter Kenworthy is a freelance journalist.