/ 29 September 2023

The eSwatini election won’t change the political landscape

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King Mswati III

eSwatini holds its 2023 general elections on 29 September but this vote is unlikely to change the political landscape in the country that is ruled by an absolute monarch. King Mswati III, who has been in power since 1986, wields absolute power, political parties are banned and lawmakers contradicting the king are side-lined. One must ask if these elections are worth contesting and if it is simply a political ploy for Mswati to exhibit some façade of providing the citizens with limited democratic rights. 

Members elected to the House of Assembly are elected from Tinkhundla, which also serve as constituencies for the purposes of electing MPs. The election will produce 59 Tinkundla (constituency) ballots for seats in the House of Assembly, including 10 lawmakers Mswati appoints directly. He also selects 20 of the 30 senators in the Senate. The rest are elected by the House of Assembly. Mswati has the prerogative to veto any legislation and appoint the prime minister and cabinet. Therefore, being in the good graces of the king is beneficial to any candidate’s political aspirations.  

Candidates cannot be affiliated to any political group; the Constitution emphasises “individual merit” as the basis for selecting MPs and public officials. According to the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC), there are about 585 000 registered voters eligible to cast their vote. The polling stations open at 7am and close at 6pm. There are 664 polling stations in the four regions of the country.

Previous election concerns

In 1973 a decree was passed banning political parties. During the 2018 election, both the African Union Election Observer Mission (AUEOM) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Electoral Observation Mission (SEOM) raised concerns over this issue:

  • The AUEOM encouraged the government to consider reviewing the decree and allow for the freedom of association in accordance with the 2005 Constitution, which offered a provision for freedom of association.
  • The SEOM stated: “The Tinkundla system appears to be non-compliant with s25 of the Constitution of eSwatini and is contrary to the Revised SADC Guidelines and Principles Governing Democratic Elections (2021), particularly s4 with respect to the right to freedom of association.”

These concerns are important because they do acknowledge the principle of SADC member states having their individual national and cultural sensitivities respected, but also recognises the barring of political parties from the electoral and political processes. The Tinkundla system does contravene both the country’s Constitution and the Revised SADC Guidelines and Principles Governing Democratic Elections (2021).  

Despite the government’s persistent non-compliance, several pro-democracy organisations and trade unions continue lobbying for political reforms and publicly challenging Mswati’s rule despite the risks involved. The government has used increasingly repressive tactics to stifle rising pro-democracy activism in recent years; those calling for political reform often face arbitrary arrests, harassment and the use of unlawful force by security forces.

Earlier this year, the SADC Electoral Advisory Council (SEAC) undertook a goodwill mission to eSwatini from 31 May to 9 June 2023 to assess the readiness of the country to hold elections. The objective of the mission was to assess:  

  • The political and security environment in the country was conducive for the holding of free and peaceful elections;
  • The legal framework governing the 2023 general elections is in place;
  • The EBC is ready and prepared to conduct democratic elections; and
  • Ways of supporting the government and the people of eSwatini to find peaceful and sustainable solutions to the national political and security crisis.

After consultations with various stakeholders, the SEAC was in a difficult position. The members wanted to advise the Ministerial Committee of the Organ that eSwatini was not ready to conduct elections in a free, credible and peaceful manner. Their findings and observations can be traced to the Tinkundla system and the views of pro-democracy groups which identified the following:

  • Lack of freedom of association, particularly with respect to the ban on political parties;
  • Lack of freedom of expression, particularly with respect to the articulation of political choices and organised political formations;
  • The potential of the eruption of violence before, during and after the elections because of unresolved conflict arising from the 2021 unrest, and
  • Lack of tangible progress in the implementation of the national dialogue that may allow for a national healing process and diffusion of the political and security tensions in the country ahead of the elections.

Emanating from the findings and observations, the SEAC then recommended the following:

  • That the government seriously put in place urgent measures to initiate the national political dialogue process as proposed by the SADC Organ Troika and endorsed by the SADC Summit; and
  • That the government hold a national dialogue with all interested parties before the general elections are held, considering that the call for a national dialogue has been on the SADC agenda since 2018.

It noted that eSwatini did not meet the criteria to hold an election as stipulated in the Revised SADC Guidelines and Principles Governing Democratic Elections (2021). 

What emerged from the SEAC recommendations is puzzling. The then chair of the Organ President Hage Geingob from Namibia was advised not to deploy the SEOM. However, in practice it may not have been as simple a process. The SEAC was uncompromising in its recommendations because eSwatini had not demonstrated any efforts to implement earlier SADC recommendations. Despite the SEAC recommendations, eSwatini invited the SEOM to observe the elections. If Geingob had heeded the SEAC’s advice it may have led to the much-desired positive effects in steering eSwatini along a path towards more democratic reforms rather than repeating an election process with an outcome that yields little opportunity for democratic change.  

Way forward

Given that several opposition groupings have called for an election boycott it will be interesting to see if the call is heeded as a show of solidarity against the rule and elections process that benefit Mswati more than the democratic rights of the electorate. Unlike in other political settings gearing up for an election cycle, in eSwatini there were few, if any, political gatherings in the period leading up to the election. This lack of political rallying deprives the electorate of an important facet of the democratic process — political choice. Again, unlike in other political settings about to go to the polls, the election results are expected sometime over the weekend, but the anticipation levels are much lower as this vote is unlikely to change the political landscape and bring democratic reform. 

Dr Craig Moffat is at Good Governance Africa, a research and advocacy nonprofit organisation with centres around Africa. Dr Mokete wa Mokete is an independent political researcher.