17 September 2018

Swaziland Heading for Lowest Election Turnout As Ordinary People Support Democratic Change

Photo: Cédric Duchamp/Flickr
(File photo).

Swaziland could be heading for the lowest election turnout in its modern history on Friday (21 September 2018).

Swaziland (recently renamed Eswatini by King Mswati III) is ruled by an absolute monarch, political parties are banned from taking part in the election and no members of the Swazi Senate are elected by the people.

The King chooses the Prime Minister and Government. The people are only allowed to elect 59 members of the House of Assembly with another 10 appointed by the King. No members of the Swazi Senate are elected by the people.

This will be the third election since Swaziland's constitution came into effect in 2006 and there is mounting evidence that ordinary people in the kingdom want more democracy.

In the first round of this year's election for seats in the House of Assembly (held on 24 August 2018) 156,983 people voted (of the 600,000 the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) said were eligible). That compared to the 251,278 people who voted in the final round of elections in 2013 and 189,559 who voted in 2008.

In June 2018 after revising the figure the EBC announced that 544,310 people had registered to vote this year. In the first round (known as the Primary Election) only 26.16 percent of those eligible voted.

People head for the final round of elections on Friday and there is no evidence of a surge in interest. The turnout in elections is important as voting is the only way people in Swaziland have to demonstrate their support (or lack of it) for the political system. The King and his supporters say that the ordinary people in Swaziland support the system that the King calls 'Monarchical Democracy,' and which he says is a partnership between himself and the people.

All debate on democratising the kingdom is ruthlessly crushed by King Mswati's state police and security forces. Meetings called to discuss democratic change are routinely disrupted by police and prodemocracy activists are jailed. Groups that support democracy are banned under the Suppression of Terrorism Act.

No news media in Swaziland support allowing political parties to contest elections.

Despite the closing down of political debate in Swaziland, one independent international group called Afrobarometer has run a number of polls in recent years surveying the views of ordinary Swazi people.

In 2015, it reported only seven in a hundred Swazi people said they were 'very satisfied' with the way democracy worked in Swaziland.

More than half (51 percent) did not think the kingdom was a democracy or it was a democracy with major problems.

Nearly six in ten people (59 percent) said they were 'not at all free' to say what they think. And nearly three-quarters (73 percent) said they were 'not at all free' or 'not very free' to join any political organisation they wanted.

Afrobarometer is a pan-African, non-partisan research network that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions, and related issues across more than 30 countries in Africa. It conducts face-to-face interviews.

This was not the first time Afrobarometer found a desire for democracy in Swaziland. In 2014 in a report called 'Let the People Have a Say' it said more than six people in ten in Swaziland said they were not satisfied with the way democracy worked in the kingdom.

The research surveyed 34-countries in Africa and asked a series of questions about what people thought about democracy and how democratic they thought their own country was.

But, only in Swaziland were researchers not allowed to ask a question about whether people rejected 'one man rule'. In its report Afrobarometer said this was because 'a near-absolute monarch resists democratization' in the kingdom.

A total of 22 percent of people interviewed in Swaziland said they believed non-democratic governments can be preferable to democracies.

Dissent in Swaziland is often put down by police and state forces, but 86 percent of people rejected military rule for Swaziland.

In 2013, Afrobarometer reported two thirds of Swazi people wanted the kingdom to become a democracy and they wanted to choose their own leaders 'through honest and open elections'. They also strongly disapproved of allowing King Mswati, who rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, to decide on everything in Swaziland.

An opinion poll conducted by Afrobarometer asked 1,200 Swazis aged 18 or over from across the kingdom how democratic they thought Swaziland was. Only 12 percent said that at present Swaziland had 'high levels' of democracy. When asked where they would like the kingdom to be 'in the future', 67 percent said they wanted to see 'high levels' of democracy.

Afrobarometer reported that 75 percent of people interviewed agreed with the statement, 'We should choose our leaders through open and honest elections.'

Despite King Mswati's stranglehold on political life in Swaziland, 46 percent of respondents agreed that, 'Members of Parliament represent the people; therefore they should make laws for the country, even if the King does not agree.'

A total of 77 percent of respondents disapproved of abolishing elections and Parliament, 'so that the King can decide on everything'.

In 2016, Afrobarometer reported that Swaziland came a long way last in a survey of 36 African countries looking at political freedom. Of those asked, 'In this country how free are you to join any political organisation you want?' only 7 percent responded, 'completely free.'

In addition, only 18 percent of those surveyed said they had complete freedom of speech and 56 percent said they had complete freedom to vote.

Afrobarometer reported that its survey coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). With the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), it formalizes the right to peaceful assembly (Article 21) and freedom of association (Article 22), among other fundamental human rights.

The report quoted the UN Special Rapporteur saying, 'freedoms of assembly and association "are a vehicle for the exercise of many other civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, allowing people to express their political opinions, engage in artistic pursuits, engage in religious observances, join trade unions, elect leaders, and hold them accountable." As such, they play "a decisive role" in building and consolidating democracy.

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