By Lunga Masuku

Manzini - Opposition groups in Swaziland, Africa's last absolute monarchy, have agreed to boycott parliamentary polls later this year, undertaking instead to push harder for multi-party elections.

A dozen political parties, civic organisations and student groupings met in Manzini at the weekend, endorsing the formation of a united front within two months to challenge the status quo in the tiny land-locked kingdom.

Mphandlana Shongwe, founder member of the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), said taking part in elections would give the state a sheen of false legitimacy. PUDEMO is one of six political parties taking part in the broad movement.

"For the past 24 years we have been able to deny the state legitimacy so we are proud of ourselves and we must not rest until we attain the goals we set for ourselves," Shongwe told a rally on Saturday.

Boycotting the polls in their current format would send a message to the world that change was required, he added.

"Does it mean we have to start butchering people before the western world can realize that there was something wrong with the way the country was governed?"

Any member of the front who wanted to stand in elections, likely to be held in October or November, would have to resign from his party, delegates concluded.

Political parties were banned in 1973 when the late King Sobhuza II, father of incumbent King Mswati, determined that Westminister-style democracy promoted hatred.

The constitution, rewritten in 2006, allows for freedom of association but people can only stand for elections as individuals.

The parliament comprises 85 members, more than a third of whom are handpicked by the king who also makes all government appointments.

The weekend meeting was initially divided over whether to boycott a system of government some argue is fundamentally flawed, or to propose an unofficial slate of election candidates to try to change the system from within.

Meeting organiser Jan Sithole told the gathering pressure groups stood little chance of making a difference if they remained fragmented.

"Because of our disorganization we have not been able to make an impact on the country's politics," he said.

"We have to claim a place in the country's political terrain."

The front will be officially launched at a conference in early April where a name and constitution would be adopted.

All but two Swazi political parties have agreed to be part of the front.

The last attempt to forge a united opposition failed when the Swaziland Democratic Alliance collapsed three years into its existence when its chairman broke ranks and took part in elections in 2003.

Swaziland, with a population of one million, is one of Africa's poorest countries and also has one of the world's highest rates of HIV infection. - Sapa-AFP