No parties, no campaign rallies, and the king chooses entire government. Is eSwatini holding the world’s weirdest election?
Critics say the electoral process in the nation formerly known as Swaziland makes a mockery of democracy
Political parties cannot be involved, there are no campaign rallies and the king wields absolute power, choosing the prime minister and cabinet: a parliamentary election in eSwatini is a vote like no other.
Opposition activists in the tiny southern African country formerly known as Swaziland say Friday’s election makes a mockery of democracy and reveals how its 1.3 million citizens have long lived under a repressive regime.
In addition to curbs on opposition parties, anti-government protests are also effectively banned.
Undercurrents of dissent have surfaced this week with trade union protests over low wages by being broken up by riot police.
At least 11 people were hurt on Tuesday, a trade union official said.
On Wednesday in the second city of Manzini, riot police and water cannon trucks dispersed several hundred protesters.
“We have been told to stop the protests but we will continue. We have had thousands of people,” said Mduduzi Gina, secretary general of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland.
In June, police used rubber bullets to break up a rare demonstration by 500 unionists protesting against alleged government theft from the national pension fund.
Around 540,000 eligible voters must choose from candidates on Friday who have no party affiliation and who are almost all loyal to King Mswati III, one of the world’s last absolute monarchs.
Winners from the 59 constituency ballots take seats in a parliament over which the king has complete control. He also appoints a further 10 directly.
Election posters line many main roads in the county, encouraging people to vote, under the slogan “We are building our nation”.
But there was only a handful of individual candidate campaign posters.
Other large street posters, picturing the king, celebrate his 50th birthday and 50 years since national independence, dubbed the “50/50” celebrations.
“It is a total misnomer to even call them elections,” said Alvit Dlamini, head of the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress, the oldest political party in eSwatini.
“Elections are a competitive process between political parties. This is a nonelection – an appointment system by the royalists. If you participate, you can’t advance your own political ideas.”
But King Mswati’s government is a fierce defender of the unique approach.
It says that constituencies are at the heart of Swazi life and provide a direct link between voters and those elected.
It describes the system as a “home-grown” reflection of traditional society.
The constitution enshrines “individual merit” as the basis for election, meaning that political parties – which were banned by the king’s father in 1973 – are deemed unnecessary.
Parties are now allowed to exist under the 2005 constitution, but have suffered repeated security crackdowns as well as court defeats in their battle for legal recognition and to be allowed to take part in elections.
Such restrictions anger many young Swazis, including supporters of Pudemo, a party that was designated a terrorist organisation in 2008 under draconian new laws widely seen as targeting government critics.
“The election is fixed, and parliament has no power. It is all with the king,” said Pudemo’s new leader Mlungisi Makhanya, 40.
“We don’t have people running in the election. If a candidate wants to be quietly known as a Pudemo supporter, we say ‘no thanks – you can’t do anything even if you are elected’.”
Nearly 20 members of Pudemo remain on bail after being charged with terrorism offences between 2009 and 2014.
Among the charges the group face are allegations they chanted pro-reform slogans at a rally and wore party T-shirts.
King Mswati, who has 14 wives and more than 25 children, has shown few signs of reforming what he calls the country’s “monarchial democracy”.
On the throne since the age of 18, this year he celebrates both his 50th birthday and 50 years since his country’s independence from Britain.
Often dressed in traditional robes, the king retains widespread support in rural eSwatini despite his reputation for lavish spending on planes and palaces while 63 per cent of his subjects live below the poverty line.
The country, landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique, suffers the highest HIV adult prevalence rate in the world at 27.2 per cent.
The king demonstrated his untrammelled authority earlier this year when making a surprise announcement that Swaziland would officially change its name to eSwatini – “land of the Swazis”.
“People can’t express their views freely, they are scared,” said Shireen Mukadam, a researcher at rights group Amnesty.
“eSwatini is an extremely closed society. There is a pervasive culture of secrecy.
“People are used to submitting to the king. The constitution itself says that he has absolute power.”