Eswatini conducts a competent caricature of democracy

The elections were quite well run, say the African Union and SADC. But to what end?

Eswatini – or Swaziland as some of its citizens still call it – held last Friday what should be called a reasonably competent charade of a legislative election.

The polls were essentially meaningless as Parliament has no power in this absolute monarchy. That was demonstrated two years ago when the state arrested two Members of Parliament (MPs) merely for suggesting the prime minister be elected by Parliament and not appointed by King Mswati III. The two MPs are serving jail sentences while a third is in exile, having fled the country one jump ahead of the police.

But as charades go, it went quite well, according to both the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the two organisations that deployed the main official election observer missions. Their preliminary reports make for interesting, if rather surreal reading. Both commended Swazis for turning out in large numbers and voting in a peaceful and orderly fashion.

They also praised Eswatini’s Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) for running the process quite competently. Most polling stations opened on time, voting procedures were largely followed, etc. The SADC Electoral Observer Mission (SEOM) also commended the electoral commission for its successful voter registration drive, which registered 584 710 voters, equating to a ‘remarkable 91.2%’ of the 641 121 eligible voters identified in the 2018 National Census.

The SEOM also noted that ‘in an effort to be more inclusive,’ the electoral commission targeted marginalised groups in its voter education. This was to ‘encourage meaningful participation and representation’ to achieve greater ‘democratic consolidation’ in line with SADC’s Principles and Guidelines for elections.

The elections were essentially meaningless as Parliament has no power in this absolute monarchy

As Piers Pigou, Head of the Southern Africa Programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), points out, these complimentary observations that suggest complete normality were rather bizarre. Especially as they were so at odds with other remarks in the SEOM report – not to mention with reality.

These other remarks point out that Eswatini’s government hasn’t implemented the SEOM’s main recommendation after the 2018 elections that it should conduct a ‘peaceful and tolerant’ dialogue about the country’s political system focusing on ‘the recognition of the role of political parties.’

For despite the constitution’s recognition of the rights of assembly and expression, political parties remain banned from participating in elections. So once again, on 29 September, candidates for Parliament stood as individuals in the country’s traditional tinkhundla system, which gives enormous powers to chiefs, who in turn are answerable to the king.

The 2023 SEOM also said that after Eswatini’s violent June 2021 pro-democracy protests and riots, in which scores were killed and much infrastructure destroyed, SADC noted that ‘the issues behind the disturbances were political, structural or systemic in nature, with the tinkhundla system at the centre.’ The SEOM reiterated its 2018 calls and SADC’s appeal for Eswatini to embark on a national dialogue to replace its current political system.

Eswatini hasn’t implemented SADC’s main recommendation after the 2018 elections

Pigou said the ‘dissonance between the two elements of the SEOM report is remarkable. It raises the question of why SADC decided to participate at all in a process that was so compromised.’ Pigou said he understood that the SADC Electoral Advisory Council had in fact recommended against sending an observer mission to Eswatini, but had been overruled by SADC’s Council of Ministers.

Probably for this reason too, the Commonwealth Secretariat, despite being involved in past efforts to resolve the country’s conflict, did not send an official observer mission. It did however deploy some election experts to report back to London on developments.

As Pigou pointed out, the problem with SADC’s decision – especially since the mission seemed to go out of its way to find nice things to say – was that it could and probably would be weaponised by Mswati to show that he’s on the right track politically.

Political activist, business leader and analyst Mandla Hlatshwayo, Head of the Letfu Sonkhe Institute for Strategic Thinking and Development, agrees. ‘The king is feeling that he has outplayed the opposition. He believes that the registrations were equivalent to a national referendum in support of his way of governing by fire and victimisation of opponents.’

Another analyst in Eswatini who ISS Today consulted believes this enthusiasm for the apparent normality of the elections may also have been motivated by public disapproval of the June 2021 violence.

SADC’s election report will likely be weaponised by Mswati to show he’s on the right track politically

But Mswati’s path forward remains unclear. The SEOM expressed hope that the national dialogue SADC had called for – and which Mswati agreed two years ago to undertake – would commence after the elections.

And Mswati has called ‘Sibaya’ (the customary consultation that the monarch occasionally holds with his subjects on important matters) for later this month. Hlatshwayo notes that Mswati promised national dialogue after the elections, but ‘No one in the pro-democracy movement is holding any breath about the elections changing anything or the prospects for [genuine] political reforms.’

Mswati is being helped by divisions in the pro-democracy movement that emerged after the assassination in January of political activist and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko. He was the unifying force who chaired the Multi-Stakeholder Forum of various pro-democracy groups established to articulate their demands for and in the proposed national dialogue.

Hlatshwayo notes that while most pro-democracy organisations boycotted the elections, ‘a small but vocal group’ in the progressive opposition campaigned for seats, hoping to challenge the regime from within Parliament. He thinks this hope is forlorn.

He believes the AU and SADC are ‘burying their heads in the sand,’ shielding Mswati from demands for democracy. Hlatshwayo suggests that only the United States, if anyone, could exert some pressure, mainly through withholding African Growth and Opportunity Act trade privileges.

In short, last Friday’s events may have been an election – but they didn’t advance democracy in Eswatini. Perhaps the converse. They were in that sense, a caricature of elections.

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria

Image: © AFP

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