Swaziland belongs to the king, so elections are a futile exercise, writes Titus Gwebu.
Mbabane - Ballots have yet to be cast for Friday’s parliamentary elections in Swaziland, but a victor can be announced already. The winner is King Mswati III. Africa’s only unelected national leader will remain firmly in charge, whatever the outcome.
Political parties are either forbidden by the constitution to participate in Friday’s elections or outlawed by government. The pro-democracy People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) has been banned as a “terrorist organisation”. One notable government critic, former labour leader Jan Sithole, then an active opponent of the government, is running for an MP’s seat in the northern suburbs of Manzini. Some political groupings have stealth candidates on ballots. But these efforts are unorganised.
Knowledgeable political observers of Swaziland know that parliament rubber-stamps policies the palace sends to them via a cabinet hand-picked by Mswati and the Queen Mother. The king may dissolve parliament whenever he likes.
In the absence of parliament, the king’s office runs the government, as it is doing this week.
Swaziland’s government was neatly summarised this week by Freedom House, the human rights watchdog NGO that released a report on the kingdom to coincide with the parliamentary elections.
“Although the Swazi government boasts trappings of a modern state – a constitution and legislative, executive and judicial branches – the monarch, King Mswati III, chooses and controls all significant office bearers. These must obey his commands. Elections occur, but political parties are banned from participating. In the elections of September 2013, this ban will again ensure that the ‘winners’ will be fully under the king’s control,” noted the report.
In an interview with one of Swaziland’s two newspapers, the Swazi Observer, which he owns through the royal conglomerate Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, Mswati said that parliament existed merely to advise the king. Mswati has newly defined his government with an oxymoron “monarchial democracy”. He told his newspaper that to him “democracy” is when the Swazi people cast ballots to choose representatives who can tell the king what they need. In turn, the king will take such counsel under advisement as he rules the Swazis.
As the constitution that was brokered by Mswati’s brothers notes: “The people have the right to be heard through their representatives.” Who exactly hears the people is not mentioned.
If MPs act independently, Mswati can ignore them. Last year, parliament cast a no-confidence vote in cabinet. The constitution required Mswati to dissolve cabinet within three days of the vote. Instead he stood by his relative, Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini. The king selects all Swazi prime ministers from the royal family. Yet the constitution states that they must be chosen from the ranks of elected MPs.
No one in parliament dared question his appointment because, as Freedom House reported: “The parliament is devoid of any political space from which it might question the king’s policy decisions.”
In the past, self-proclaimed political progressives have been elected to parliament with the promise to reform from within, only to remain silent and inactive while in the House of Assembly. Pudemo in its decision to boycott Friday’s elections cited these examples as proof that reformers standing in Friday’s election will also either be powerless to change the system or will be co-opted into the system.
In an interview, Sithole declined to say how he would effectively change governance in a system designed to thwart such ambitions. However, in his weekly newspaper column for the Times of Swaziland, Sithole said election boycotts had achieved nothing and it was time to rethink the strategy of exclusion.
“Some people ask what makes me think I will succeed when others have failed before. I would answer by telling them that one of my distant cousins failed second grade not once but twice, but this did not stop my parents from sending me to school. It does not mean that just because others have failed, everyone else will,” he wrote.
At a meeting this week with voters, Sithole said his decision to run was strategic and did not alter his core principles.
If those principles include bringing true democracy to Swaziland, he did not mention this to prospective voters.
Instead, he spoke of the need to address social and economic concerns.
“What could Sithole say, that he wants multi-party democracy?” a Sithole supporter said. “That would get him disqualified as a candidate by the Elections Commission because no one is allowed to support political parties.”
The Swazi chief whom King Mswati appointed to run the Elections Commission – another illegal appointment because the constitution specifies qualifications for the post that the chief does not have – said prior to the 2013 primary elections: “The owners of the country have clearly stated that people will stand for elections in their individual capacities and not through political parties.”
Politically as well as economically, the identity of the “owners” of Swaziland are no secret. King Mswati controls 60 percent of the Swaziland economy and has a personal wealth of R2 billion, while 70 percent of Swazis live in chronic poverty.
To enforce the ban on organised political opposition to royal rule that his father King Sobhuza decreed in 1973, King Mswati spends heavily in his security forces. Expenditures on army and police escalated 486 percent from 2012 to 2013.
Sithole’s main competitor in the election was kicked out of cabinet last year on corruption charges and is now spending heavily to win the favour of voters. The Election Commission has consistently ignored candidates’ flagrant and well-documented vote-buying though it is illegal.
Savvy Swazis are demanding R500 to vote for a candidate. Others are extracting promises of jobs and scholarships. At the very least successful candidates must offer food to voters and blankets to the elderly.
“Voters know that MPs have no power to make their lives better, and they are getting what they can now during the one time MPs interact with the people. After elections the people never see their MPs. In Swaziland, the MPs are answerable to the king, not the people,” said Charles Simelane, a law student in Manzini.
Indeed, when MPs take their oath of office, they swear their allegiance not to the people of Swaziland who elected them or to the constitution of Swaziland, but to King Mswati III.
Independent Foreign Service