What elections mean in Africa’s last absolute monarchy

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Swaziland’s humanitarian crises were uppermost in the minds of voters casting their ballots in the parliamentary election on 19 September.

“I don’t care about politics, I care about feeding my family. My candidate promised us food,” said Charles Nkosi, a motorcar mechanic in the Mbekelweni constituency, north of Manzini, the country’s commercial hub.

At a pre-election rally in the drought-stricken Lubombo region in the east of the country, voters shouted down candidates promising grandiose development schemes during the final leg of the election campaign in the second week of September. “We want water! Bring us water!” chanted people sitting on the ground beneath the bare branches of dry trees.

Two-thirds of Swaziland’s people live in chronic poverty, according to the UN Development Programme, and nearly 40 percent are HIV-positive, giving Swaziland the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world.

Production improved in 2008, after the worst ever harvest in 2007, but is still below the national requirement, while the global food and fuel crisis has also contributed to the chronic food insecurity affecting more than 20 percent of the population.

Another Mbekelweni resident, Mandla Simelane, said he would vote for a candidate who had promised to give him a job. Swaziland’s unemployment is estimated to be as high as 45 percent.

Government declared voting day a national holiday to ensure a good turnout at the polls. According to the Elections and Boundaries Commission appointed by King Mswati to run the election, a majority of adult Swazis registered to vote.

An election boycott called by pro-democracy groups focused on the members of progressive political organisations to dissuade them from participating as candidates, rather than on voters.

“People like to vote, even if the election itself has no value. We don’t wish to deny them the practice of participating in a political system, because one day people’s votes will matter in Swaziland,” said Valerie Shongwe, a member of the banned political party, Ngwane National Liberatory Congress.


A new Constitution, which came into effect on 8 February 2006, introduced a Bill of Rights that includes freedom of association but does not allow parliamentary candidates to stand for election as members of political parties. Once elected, Members of Parliament (MPs) cannot form a “party voting block” in the house that might challenge the current government.

Though Mswati’s reforms have made it possible for Swazis to vote since 1993, parliament does not set national policy or write legislation, which remains the king’s privilege and is carried out by cabinet. “MPs complain they have been reduced to rubber stamps, and that cabinet ministers ignore them even in an advisory capacity,” said a country report by the Institute for Security Studies, a South Africa-based think-tank.

The bicameral parliament comprises a House of Assembly with 65 members, of which 10 are appointed by the King and the rest directly elected every five years.

Under the new Constitution this was increased to 75 members, of whom 60 are to be elected from tinkhundla constituencies, which are traditional authorities grouped together.

The Senate has 30 members, 20 appointed by the King and 10 chosen by the House of Assembly. The Prime Minister, appointed by the King, does not have to be an elected member of the House of Assembly. Since Swaziland’s independence 40 years ago, the premier has been a member of the ruling royal Dlamini family.

Observers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) came to determine whether the election process and Friday’s proceedings were “free and fair”. A Commonwealth expert team in Swaziland this week noted that the elections on 19 September were the first to be held under the new constitution.

Commonwealth observers of the previous elections, in 2003, had commented that they did not consider the credibility of the elections in Swaziland an issue, as “no elections can be credible when they are for a Parliament which does not have power, and when political parties are banned.”

Some voters were dismissive of the poll process and cited frivolous reasons for going to the polls, “I heard the candidates are giving people free savoury doughnuts [vetkoek],” said Joseph Thwala.

But there are those who hope their candidates will be able to exert some influence on addressing the crises. “I have HIV and I need antiretroviral (ARV) drugs. I am voting for someone who will push the health ministry to make sure there is a reliable supply of ARVs,” said Alicia Ndwandwe, who lives in Manzini with her three children.

“MPs don’t make laws in Swaziland but they can be like developmental officers for their constituencies, pushing the ministries to build clinics and schools,” said Absalom Nxumalo, a teacher in Manzini.

“People do not vote on the basis of a candidate’s policies, but on his or her promises to deliver things, and MPs’ performances in parliament are judged by whether they do deliver these things.”


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