Eswatini Gears Up For Party-Less Parliamentary Elections

King Mswati III, Head of State of the Kingdom of Eswatini, addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventy-fourth session in 2019.
28 September 2023

Harare — Tomorrow legislative elections will be held in the Kingdom of Eswatini, the last absolute monarchy in Africa.

Political parties are not permitted to run in these elections as the Constitution places a strong focus on "individual merit" as the standard for choosing parliamentarians, who cannot belong to any political party. The 59 members of the lower house of parliament will be chosen by 585,000 registered voters, but being in good standing with King Mswati III is crucial as he personally chooses 10 more parliamentarians. A total of 59 members of the lower house of parliament, which exclusively serves as the monarch's advisor, will be chosen by the approximately 585,000 registered voters, and serve as the king's advisors.

The election is unlikely to alter the political landscape in the nation formerly known as Swaziland because the majority of candidates are loyal to the king. Only a handful of the candidates who were nominated at last month's primaries are known to have connections to the opposition. For fear of repression, many people avoid stating their political affiliation.

Political parties cannot directly participate in elections due to their ambiguous legal standing. In 1973, they were essentially outlawed, but a new Constitution adopted in 2005 created a space for freedom of association. According to democracy watchdog Freedom House, there is still no official way for them to register.

One of the biggest opposition movements, the People's United Democratic Movement, was labelled a "terrorist" organization and banned. Two opposition lawmakers who won the latest 2018 election are currently in prison, while one more is in exile. The majority of opposition organizations called a boycott, but there haven't been many political gatherings during the two-week election campaign period.

The electoral commission said that polls will be open at 7am local time (05:00 GMT) and conclude at 6pm, with results anticipated during the following weekend.

Mswati, who is now 55 and ruled with an iron fist for 37 years, came into power when he was 18 years old. Legally speaking, the king is above the law. He appoints the prime minister and the Cabinet, has the authority to dissolve both the government and the legislature, and is in charge of the police and the army.

Pro-democracy demonstrations are uncommon, but in 2021 they shook the kingdom. Security forces forcibly put down protests asking for reform, resulting in the deaths of dozens of people. Internet access was restricted, demonstrations were forbidden, and a curfew was imposed. Following the crackdown, protests have sporadically continued.

Thulani Maseko, a human rights attorney and government skeptic, was shot dead at his house earlier this year. A few hours before his assassination, the king had forbade campaigners to "shed tears" over "mercenaries killing them". An impartial investigation was requested by the UN. The king, also known as Ngwenyama, or "the lion" in SiSwati, came under fire for leading a luxury lifestyle while roughly 60% of the population survives on less than $1.90 per day.

It is well known that the monarch, who typically makes public appearances wearing traditional attire, adores fine watches and cars. He has 15 wives, some of whom he married when they were minors, and spends millions of dollars a year on each of them. He also has at least 25 children.

In 2018, he changed the name of the nation to Eswatini, which means "land of the Swazis", to commemorate its 50th year of independence.

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