Swaziland:Low Turnout At Election Fuels Doubts About Support for Absolute Monarchy


September 10, 2018 10:32 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Fewer than one in three people who registered to vote actually did so in the first round of Swaziland’s national election, an analysis of poll data reveals.

The low turnout raises the question whether ordinary people support the political system in the kingdom where King Mswati III rules as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch. Political parties are banned from taking part in the election and the King appoints the Prime Minister and government members. In April on his 50th birthday King Mswati changed Swaziland’s name to Eswatini.

People only elect 59 of the members of the House of Assembly; the King appoints a further ten. None of the 30-member Senate are elected by the people.

Voters went to the polls on 24 August 2018 in the first round of elections known as the Primary Election. They were voting for members of parliament and also for community leaders.

The Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) did not release information on how many people in total voted at the election. It did however publish on its website the results for individual candidates at each of the 59 constituencies (known as tinkhundla).

An analysis using the EBC data shows that a total of 156,973 people voted for members of the House of Assembly at the Primary Election; 28.83 percent of those who registered.

In June 2018 after revising the figure the EBC announced that 544,310 people had registered to vote. It said earlier that 600,000 people in the kingdom were eligible to register. This meant, according to EBC figures, that 90.7 percent of eligible people had done so.

It is impossible to compare the 2018 voting with the last election in 2013 as the EBC did not reveal the total number of people who voted at the Primary Election.

In 2013 it did announce that 251,278 people voted in the final round of elections (called the Secondary Election) from the 414,704 who had registered. However, it did not release detailed figures showing how many votes each candidate received so it is impossible to independently verify the EBC figure.

The turnout in the 2018 Primary Election is important as voting is the only way people in Swaziland have of demonstrating their support (or lack of it) for the political system. In 1973, King Sobhuza II tore up the constitution, banned political parties and began to rule by decree. Although a new constitution came into effect in 2006, little has changed and King Sobhuza’s son King Mswati III continues to rule as an absolute monarch.

Political opposition is banned and those who campaign for democracy are charged under the Suppression of Terrorism Act.

King Mswati and his supporters say Swaziland has a ‘unique democracy’ and the people of Swaziland like it that way. But they have never been asked if they approve of Swaziland’s political system.

In 2013, shortly before the last election King Mswati announced that from that day forward the political system in Swaziland would be known as ‘Monarchical Democracy,’ which he said would be a partnership between himself and the people. He tried to sell this as a new idea but later admitted to Reuters news agency that it was just another name for the tinkhundla system that already existed.

Elections are the only way the Swazi people have to endorse the King’s version of democracy. Voting patterns in the past suggest they have not been overwhelming supporters.

In 2013, the EBC reported than 251,278 people voted from the 414,704 who registered. It also reported that 600,000 Swazis were entitled to register. That meant that only 41.8 percent of those entitled to vote did so in 2013. In the 2018 Primary Election only 26.16 percent of the 600,000 people entitled to vote actually did so.

It is recognised globally that Swaziland is not a democracy. The United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office in a report on Swaziland in 2013 said, ‘Swaziland continues to suffer from a range of governance problems which adversely impact human rights and inhibit the country’s social and economic development and its ability to attract much-needed foreign investment.

The judicial system has suffered repeated crises; the Suppression of Terrorism Act has been used to prevent legitimate expression of political views; peaceful protests have been disrupted and in some cases excessive force used against protesters. The absence of clearly documented land rights has prevented small farmers from developing their land. Efforts to amend Swaziland’s laws to prevent domestic violence and to improve the legal status of women have made little progress.’

The European Union Election Experts Mission (EEM), one of a number of international groups that monitored the conduct of Swaziland’s election in 2013, made much of how the kingdom’s absolute monarchy undermined democracy.

In its report it stated, ‘The King has absolute power and is considered to be above the law, including the Constitution, enjoying the power to assent laws and immunity from criminal proceedings. A bill shall not become law unless the King has assented to it, meaning that the parliament is unable to pass any law which the King is in disagreement with. The King will refer back the provisions he is not in agreement with, which makes the parliament and its elected chamber, the House of Assembly, ineffective, unable to achieve the objective a parliament is created for: to be the legislative branch of the state and maintain the government under scrutiny.’

The EEM was not alone in recognising Swaziland as undemocratic. In its report on conduct of the 2013 election, the African Union (AU) mission called for fundamental changes to ensure people had freedom of speech and of assembly. The AU said the Swaziland Constitution guaranteed ‘fundamental rights and freedoms including the rights to freedom of association’, but in practice ‘rights with regard to political assembly and association are not fully enjoyed’. The AU said this was because political parties were not allowed to contest elections.

In its report on the 2013 elections, Commonwealth observers recommended that measures be put in place to ensure separation of powers between the government, parliament and the courts so that Swaziland was in line with its international commitments. They also called on the Swaziland Constitution to be ‘revisited’. It recommended that a law be passed to allow for political parties to take part in elections, ‘so as to give full effect to the letter and spirit of Section 25 of the Constitution, and in accordance with Swaziland’s commitment to its regional and international commitments’.

Categorised in: