Swaziland: when is a democracy not a democracy? When it’s “monarchical”.
The small southern African country of Swaziland is in a dire state. It has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world, 41% of the population are unemployed and 91% exist on less than $5 a day. Yet its public school-educated King is rich, living in lavish splendour, with a multitude of wives and one of the biggest security services in Africa (the IMF says this should be the top priority for budget cutbacks, which is unusual for the neo-liberal institution.) The trade union movement, TUCOSWA, has been deregistered and is often prevented from demonstrating or even meeting.
Yet the King claims that the kingdom is a ‘monarchical democracy’ (a term which apparently came to him in a divine revelation, during a thunderstorm earlier this year). Last month, the country went to the polls to elect a new Parliament, and despite official claims of a 97% turnout, it seems that the real winner was the abstentionist campaign run by TUCOSWA and the opposition PUDEMO party. Over three weeks after the elections, no figures for turnout have been released, just the names of the new MPs. But the smart money is on a turnout of under 100,000 – one in six of those eligible.
This is a country which belongs to the Commonwealth of Nations, whose recently adopted Charter commits member states to free and fair elections, rather than the ‘selection’ that has taken place in Swaziland (see below for more details of how the ‘selection’ process works.) When the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting takes place in Sri Lanka next month, Swaziland should be suspended, until democracy is established and unions freed.
Some are arguing that the King is right to say that his subjects don’t want a party political system, although the appallingly low turnout suggests considerable discontent with the current system. And in the absence of free speech, assembly or association; no genuinely independent media; and harassment of opponents (including suspicious deaths in custody, periodic internal deportations ahead of public demonstrations, and the occasional raid on even church services), it’s a bit difficult to see how the population could make their views known on the issue
‘Monarchical democracy’ really is farcical. Of the 65 members of the lower house, ten are directly appointed by the King (this week he began by appointing two princes, a princess and three other members of his own Dlamini clan), and the other 55 are ‘elected’ from candidates hand-picked by traditional chiefs who are loyal to the King. The upper house is made up of 30 members, 10 elected by the rigged lower chamber and a further 20 appointed by the King. Who also appoints the Prime Minister.
Political parties are banned from standing candidates, and there were widespread reports of voters being bussed around the country to vote illegally for the King’s favourites, as well as of outright bribery. All this led to the normally timid African Union Election Observer Mission (AUEOM) to criticise openly:
“the fact that political parties are banned from competing in the elections – a clear violation of people’s rights to freedom of assembly and association in the country. The mission, headed by Justice Maxon Mbendera, pointed out that – while Swaziland’s Constitution guaranteed the fundamental rights of association and assembly, these rights with regard to political assembly and association were not fully enjoyed.”
Former trade unionist Jan Sithole has secured election as an individual, although he claims that two other members of his Swaziland Democratic Party have also been elected (anonymously, for their own protection), and this is also being seen by some as a vindication of the argument that participating in the electoral system is the solution. TUCOSWA leaders I’ve spoken to don’t criticise Sithole as harshly as some have done, but they are unconvinced that he can make a difference from the inside, as it’s a strategy that has failed before.