/ 29 September 2023

eSwatini, an absolute monarchy, holds ‘elections’

Mswati Flouts Constitution To Cement Royal Control Of Judiciary
Undemocratic: King Mswati is constitutionally above the law. Opposition parties are banned or register as NGOs.

The last absolute monarchy in Africa, the Kingdom of eSwatini, holds parliamentary elections on Friday, with political parties banned from contesting. 

The Constitution emphasises “individual merit” as the basis for selecting lawmakers, who cannot be affiliated with any political group.

Being in the good graces of King Mswati III, who wields absolute power, also carries much weight.

About 585 000 registered voters will be called to choose 59 members of the lower house of parliament, which plays only an advisory role to the monarch.

Mswati, who can veto any legislation, directly appoints another 10 lawmakers.

With most candidates loyal to the king, the election is unlikely to change the political scenery. 

Only about a dozen of those nominated during primaries last month are known to have ties to the opposition. 

Many do not say which side they are on, fearing repression. 

“Democracy is not that much practised around here,” said Thantaza Silolo, spokesperson for the largest opposition group, the Swaziland Liberation Movement (Swalimo). 

Political parties have unclear status and cannot directly take part in the vote.

They were effectively banned in 1973, but a new Constitution in 2005 provided an opening allowing for freedom of association.

Still, in practice there is no legal avenue for them to register, according to democracy watchdog Freedom House. 

Swalimo is incorporated as a nonprofit.

The People’s United Democratic Movement, one of the largest opposition movements, has been declared a “terrorist” organisation and banned.

Two opposition lawmakers elected in the last vote in 2018 are currently in jail. A third is in exile. 

Most opposition groupings have called for a boycott. Three have told voters to go to the polls. 

Few political gatherings have taken place during a two-week campaigning period.

Polls open at 7am and close at 6pm, according to the electoral commission, with results expected over the weekend.

Formerly known as Swaziland, the mountainous country of 1.2 million people is landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique.

About half the size of Belgium, it gained independence from Britain in 1968. 

Mswati, 55, ascended to the throne at the age of 18 and has ruled with an iron fist for 37 years. 

The king is constitutionally above the law.

He appoints the prime minister and the cabinet, can dissolve both parliament and the government and commands police and the army. 

Shows of dissent are rare, but in 2021 the kingdom was shaken by pro-democracy protests.

Dozens of people were killed as security forces violently quashed demonstrations calling for reforms. 

A curfew was imposed, demonstrations banned and internet access curbed. 

Protests have continued sporadically after the crackdown.

Earlier this year, human rights lawyer and government critic Thulani Maseko was shot dead through the window of his home.

Hours before his murder, the king had warned activists who defy him not to “shed tears” about “mercenaries killing them”.

The United Nations has called for an independent investigation.

Known as Ngwenyama, “the lion” in SiSwati, the king has been widely criticised for his lavish lifestyle, while nearly 60% of the population live on less than $1.90 a day.

The plump monarch, who usually appears in public wearing traditional clothes, is known to love luxury cars and watches.

He spends millions of dollars a year on his 15 wives, some of whom he married when they were minors, and has at least 25 children. 

eSwatini has one of the highest prevalence rates of HIV in the world with about 26% of adults aged 15 to 49 living with the Aids-causing virus in 2022, according to UN figures. — AFP