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2013 Swaziland Elections: Real Change or Royal Farce?

One of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies, Swaziland remains in the outer reaches of most people’s general knowledge of nations. Located in between Mozambique and South Africa, this small country’s  centuries old traditions and customs are enshrined into its constitution through the unique Tinkhundla system. On August 24th, 2013, parliamentary elections took place throughout Swaziland, albeit with one major foible; this election was for a parliament with miniscule governmental powers in comparison to those of King Mswati III.

      Swaziland’s governmental structure is unique in the sense that since a ban on organized political opposition to royal rule was proclaimed by King Mswati III’s father, King Sobhuza II in 1973, every election since then has been contested by independents who adhere to the kingdoms’ traditional Tinkhundla system. While this system allows local chiefs to have a say in the nomination process for candidates, giving an advantage to the Monarchy in stamping out any blatantly anti-royalist candidates, it also provides a link between the government and non-governmental organization on the grassroots level. Although to the surprise of many observers, 46 MPs serving in the outgoing parliament have not been reelected. This indicates the growing dissatisfaction among the Swazi populace over the lack of transparent democratic reforms and the deterioration of the standard of living for the average Swazi citizen since the change in disbursements from the Southern African Customs Union in 2010. Another major indicator of general dissatisfaction with the status quo, is the election of Jan Sithole, who is a former trade unionist and leader of the Swaziland Democratic Party (SWADEPA), a prominent opposition group.

       Sithole’s election into the lower chamber of parliament, the House of Assembly, signals a small but significant change in the Swazi political landscape. Since Sithole is the leader of the main opposition group of Swaziland, his reasoning for going against a general boycott advocated by most opposition groups in Swaziland, is to change the political system from the inside. Whether or not Sithole’s tactic will succeed largely depends on how well he will be able to navigate the executive-centric government mechanisms that are heavily entrenched in Swaziland. This is reflected through the immense powers King Mswati III holds, such as the ability to appoint the prime minister at will by recommendation from his cabinet, and the ability to appoint two thirds of the Senate and almost a sixth of the lower house. Although his greatest power is the fact that the King is ruling through decree, in the same manner as his father.

       Another reason for the very low reelection rates of incumbents in the 2013 Swaziland election stems form the fact that approximately 70 percent of the Swazi population live on $2 a day, in addition to carrying the burden of having the world’s highest HIV rate at 26% of the entire adult population. Cathal Gilbert of the U.S. based watchdog Freedom House described Swaziland as a nation “where 1.2 million people survive under a monarchy that has taken all of the powers of the state, that controls the judiciary completely, that rules over a parliament with absolutely no powers, and that has plundered the resources of the country to such an extent that they can only afford to spend $23 dollars a year on healthcare for each Swazi.” These levels of poverty and deprivation among the Swazi populace are especially shocking when the vast economic might of the King himself is taken into account. King Mswati III has an estimated fortune worth 200 million dollars, in addition to controlling 60 percent of the Swaziland economy through stakes in numerous state companies.

During an interview with King Mswati III in early September, the King described the current status quo in government as a “monarchical democracy”, in which the elections are held to choose representatives, who in turn tell the King what the needs of the people are. The main component of this form of government is that the King himself mentioned that these opinions by the elected representatives will only be taken into account in the King’s ultimate decisions, and cannot compel the King to take a decision against his will. A perfect example of how this term “monarchical democracy” is applied in Swazi politics is the reappointment of Prime Minister Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini for the next five years despite the general populace’s dislike of his policies. Dlamini is accused by human rights groups of helping crush protests against the government in 2011, and therefore is a strong pro-monarchist ally of King Mstwati III.

While the 2013 Swaziland elections have demonstrated that a major change in the composition of the Parliament is possible, it is nevertheless a very small power shift in a political landscape that is undeniably controlled by King Mswati III. The results from the 2013 elections present a catch-22 for the future of Swaziland; on one hand the continuation by King Mswati II of his father’s strict pro-monarchy policies create an environment of lessening political maneuverability for voices of the opposition, while on the other hand this same continuation of his father’s style of governance is worsening an already weak economic, and fueling the increasing amount of protests that threaten the King’s very hold on power.

 -Gabriel Ning

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