Voters in Africa’s tiny mountain kingdom of Swaziland began casting ballots yesterday for a new parliament, in an election dismissed by critics as a rubber stamp for King Mswati III’s absolute rule.
The 45-year-old head of sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarchy holds ultimate sway over the government, can veto new laws, dissolve parliament and may not be sued or charged.
Days before the poll, which are held every five years, he chose an 18-year-old to be his 14th wife.
Yesterday’s ballot will see the election of 55 lawmakers, with candidates having been handpicked locally by traditional chiefs loyal to the king in one of the world’s poorest countries, where political parties are restricted.
As they patiently lined up to cast their ballots, not all of the country’s 415,000 registered voters expressed satisfaction with a system that their king recently described as a “monarchical democracy.”
“This political traditional system we use in Swaziland, I think is now outdated,” 37-year-old Machawe Dlamini said. “It is unique but I don’t think it can take us to the developed world. We should consider change.”
Yet Duduzile Mbhele, in her 20s, disagreed, saying she is content with the “status quo.”
“No, we don’t want political parties,” she said. “We are Swazis, we want a system that belongs to us, a system that we know. Political parties have a lot of noise and violence.”
Opposition groups such as the banned party Pudemo and South Africa-based Swaziland Solidarity Network have called for a boycott of the election.
“Although the Swazi government boasts trappings of a modern state... the monarch, King Mswati III, chooses and controls all significant office bearers. These must obey his commands at all times,” US-based rights group Freedom House said in a damning report this month.
Yet the presence of a handful of reform-minded candidates has led some commentators to speculate that Swaziland’s royals may be preparing a more inclusive government that could bring gradual change.
Locked between Mozambique and South Africa, Swaziland remains one of the world’s poorest countries, though its monarch is said to be worth about US$200 million.
About 70 percent of the 1.2 million people live below the poverty line, according to the UN. At the same time, 31 percent of adults live with HIV or AIDS, according to a survey last year.
A fiscal crisis is also looming as the government has done little to cut a ballooning public wage bill and the royal household’s spending.
Mswati has 13 wives and last weekend announced his engagement to a 14th.
The queens each have their own palaces and are notorious for overseas shopping sprees.
Swaziland relies on a regional customs union for almost half of public revenues, according to UK-based think tank Chatham House. However, that income is set to drop dramatically in coming years when the union changes its payouts.
“The country’s economic trajectory is unsustainable,” researcher Chris Vandome wrote.
“After the election dust has settled, King Mswati III will need to consider reform options to lower the crippling public sector wage bill and improve the business environment,” he wrote.
Social upheaval is uncommon, though police have crushed the few peaceful protests that occurred in the country over the past years.
“Human rights reports on Swaziland have cited serious abuses including killings by security forces, torture and beatings of pro-democracy activists, [and] arbitrary arrests,” Freedom House said in their report that branded the country a “failed feudal state.”