19 September 2013

Swaziland Vote Unlikely to Usher in Change

Photo: Darron Raw
His Majesty, King Mswati III.

King Mswati III rules Swaziland like a dictator, ruthlessly persecuting and imprisoning his opponents. Few believe Friday's elections will inch the country any closer to democratic governance.

Thousands of young women, bare-bosomed in short skirts and festively clad in the national colors of blue, yellow and red, are singing and dancing for King Mswati III. The monarch is wearing his regalia: three red feathers which adorn his hair.

Reed dances are a tradition in Swaziland. They are a well-established tourist attraction and you can find videos of them on YouTube.

After one such spectacle at the weekend before the elections, King Mswati III decided to expand his harem. An 18-year-old girl who has just finished school was selected to be his fifteenth wife. If Mswati has a wish, it is fulfilled. The 45 year-old monarch has ruled the tiny kingdom bordering on South Africa and Mozambique for 27 years and parliamentary elections on Friday (20.9.2013) are unlikely to change this.

Elections no indication of democratic reform

"We live in an absolute monarchy and the king has absolute power," said Maxwell Dlamini, secretary general of the Swaziland Youth Congress and a pro-democracy activist. He told Deutsche Welle that the elections are just a process in which the people of Swaziland are being used. "It's an attempt to try and persuade the international community that we have credible elections here in Swaziland," he added.

The elections have very little in common with democracy as practised in the West. Political parties are banned. The king declared that the biggest opposition party Pudemo, which operates from neighboring South Africa, was a terrorist organization .

At the elections, aspiring MPs stand as independent candidates. They have the backing of local leaders, usually loyalists. Ten of the 65 MPs are appointed directly by Mswati, the remainder need his approval before they can take up their seats. The king also determines occupancy of two thirds of the senate, decides who becomes prime minister, a member of the cabinet or a top judge. Parliament has virtually no powers. Mswati is the executive, legislature and judiciary rolled into one.

King persecutes dissidents

There has been a monarchy in Swaziland since 1815 and it is deeply ensconced in local traditions and culture. Mswati enjoys playing the part of spiritual leader of his 1.2 million subjects. At the beginning of September, he proclaimed that Swaziland was now a "monarchic democracy." He said he had been ordered to make this move by God during a thunderstorm. One of his spokesmen later proclaimed there had been "a marriage between the monarch and the ballot box."

Resistance to the monarchy leads nowhere as Maxwell Dlamini has discovered through personal experience. "The king cannot cope with public criticism and that's why people are always being arbitrarily detained, tortured or forced into exile," he said. Dlamini himself has just been released on bail. "I was put in prison on two completely abstruse charges," he said. The rights group Amnesty International has also repeatedly criticized the violation of human rights in Swaziland. Journalists and critics of the King are intimated, persecuted and incarcerated.

Dlamini organized a demonstration against the king back in April 2011. It was hardly a mass rally, just the first protest of its kind, inspired by the Arab Spring. One of the protestors' main grievances was the unremitting poverty in the country. Mswati does not only exercise political power over the country, he also has a stranglehold on its economic life. "He describes himself as the owner of the country," said Marcus Schneider who monitors events in Swaziland for Germany's Friedrich Ebert Foundation. He told DW: "The king controls 60 percent of the land himself. That's where the rural population live and they make up three quarters of the total. They have no land rights whatsoever and could be driven away at any moment."

HIV and poverty widespread

Swaziland is one of the ten poorest countries in the world and two thirds of the population eke out an existence on less than a dollar a day. Financially, the country is dependent on transfers from abroad, mostly from South Africa. Sugar exports are suffering from a drop in prices on the world market. Corruption is widespread and every third Swazi is infected with HIV - that's the highest infection rate anywhere in the world.

The king meanwhile lives a life of luxury. He has 13 palaces, a private jet and a Maybach luxury limousine. According to Forbes magazine, he occupies 15th place in the ranking of the world's wealthiest monarchs. But why does one hear so little about Swaziland? "There are very few countries that have economic interests here. Swaziland is small, not really present in the international arena," said Schneider. "At the same time, it is a brutal dictatorship, but not quite brutal enough to generate the sort of pictures that would cause an international furore. That's why this crisis lacks an international dimension," he explained.

However South Africa watches Swaziland very closely. The regional economic powerhouse could bring diplomatic pressure to bear on its tiny neighbor, but does not wish to jeopardize stability in the region. Schneider believes that the majority of Swazis won't bother to go out and vote on Friday, especially as the opposition has called for a boycott.

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