25 September 2018

Swaziland Election Observer Groups Say Vote Was 'Peaceful' but Fall Short of 'Free and Fair'

None of the three official observer groups reporting so far on the Swaziland election have concluded it was 'free and fair'.

People went to the polls on Friday (21 September 2018) in the kingdom recently renamed Eswatini by the absolute monarch King Mswati. Political parties are banned from taking part in the election and the people are only allowed to elect 59 members of the House of Assembly; the King appoints a further 10. None of the 30 members of the Swazi Senate are elected by the people.

The King chooses the Prime Minister and government ministers as well as top public servants and judges.

In its election report the African Union (AU) called on Swaziland to end the ban on political parties.

AU mission head James Michel, the former Seychelles president, said, 'The mission encourages the eSwatini authorities to consider reviewing the 1973 decree on the ban on political parties and allow them to freely participate in the election.'

In a statement ahead of the visit the AU said, 'The overall objective of AU election observation missions is to promote democracy, strengthen democratic institutions and build public confidence in electoral processes in Africa.'

The Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) Election Observation Mission in its report said the election had been successful, 'in line with the Constitution of the Kingdom of Eswatini, and the guiding Legal Framework'. Unlike the AU, it did not consider whether Swaziland was a democracy.

At the launch of its report on Sunday one of the SADC observer team, Harris Putani, the Deputy Chief Executive Officer at the Malawi Electoral Commission, said SADC was not present in Swaziland to change the kingdom's governance but only to observe elections.

The Swazi Observer, a newspaper in effect owned by the King, reported on Monday, 'He said their guidelines expected them to confine to each country's national laws. Putani said each country has its own mandate that national observers are bound to align with.'

The Eswatini Elections Support Network which operates under the auspices of the Coordinating Assembly of NGOs (CANGO) made no comment about the election being 'free and fair'. It had felt obliged to issue a clarification after its report on the first round of the election in August which had stated elections, 'were undertaken in an atmosphere that is free and fair'.

It later issued a statement that said its report, 'was not giving an overall assessment of the elections. What was essentially being stated was that on the day of elections most of the election processes allowed the voters to cast their votes in an environment that was not intimidating as well as facilitated the secrecy of the vote.'

All three of the observer groups reporting on the final round of the election (the secondary election) said it had been 'peaceful'. But, CANGO said in its report, the election was 'relatively peaceful'.

However, it added, 'The environment outside the polling station was peaceful except for Ndzingeni during counting and Hillside polling stations where violence was experienced throughout the day and hence, OSSU [the Operational Support Service Unit or 'riot police'] was called in to retain order.

'In Hillside, police kept vigilance throughout the day to maintain peace and order.

'In Ndzingeni polling stations, voters were dispersed using teargas during counting as voters threatened to enter the polling station where counting was taking place.'

There were numerous credible reports of violence published in Swaziland newspapers in the two days following the election.

There had also in the days ahead of the election been violent attacks by the police on public sector workers who were engaged in peaceful and legal protest in support of pay increases and other matters.

The reports of violence in the newspapers included police firing gunshots in the air and grenades and rubber bullets as voters at Sigwe protested against completed ballot papers being taken away from a polling centre.

Police from the OSSU fired bullets into the air and teargas at a large crowd at Mayiwane. Men described as 'mostly half-naked and heavily intoxicated' blocked traffic at Mayiwane for three hours by burning car tyres in the middle of the road, the Sunday Observer reported. A building was also vandalised.

APA news agency reported outbursts of violence started as early as noontime on election day and intensified in the evening when the counting of votes was about to resume. At Manzini North, Manzini South, and Ekupheleni polling centres the police had to request for backup from the OSSU after vehicles from the Elections an Boundaries Commission (EBC) were forced to turn back to polling stations for safety after roads leading to counting centres were blocked with stones and tree trunks by protesting crowds.

At Malindza in the Lubombo region, an intoxicated member of the army drove over a male voter and further crashed onto two cars that were parked within the polling station premises, APA reported

Police were called to Manzini South after a row broke out over alleged corruption and buying of votes.

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