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PARLIAMENTARTY POLLS

To contest or boycott? Eswatini election divides pro-democracy activists

Political activists in Eswatini are deeply divided over whether to contest or boycott parliamentary elections in late September under an electoral system that bars political parties.

The tiny landlocked kingdom, which shares borders with South Africa and Mozambique, goes to the polls on 29 September to elect members of parliament two years after violent pro-democracy protests left dozens dead. 

Since 1993, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) has held parliamentary elections every five years, but there is no legislative framework enabling the participation of political parties. Instead, aspiring parliamentarians can stand only as independents.

The nomination process takes place in Royal Kraals under the watchful eye of traditional authorities (chiefs), who can influence voters not to nominate candidates perceived to be disloyal to the chief and those seen as anti-monarchy.

Elected legislators enjoy parliamentary privilege – they can pass or block bills and they can also pass a vote of no confidence in the cabinet. But they have no constitutional powers to hold the monarch to account or to debate the royal budget.

Read more in Daily Maverick: eSwatini votes but the king holds absolute power

The Eswatini legislature comprises two houses: the lower house of Assembly and the upper house of Senate. The electorate can elect only 59 of the 69 members of the lower house. The remaining 10 members are appointed by King Mswati.

The people do not elect any members of the upper house of the Senate.

Twenty senators are appointed by the king while the remaining 10 are elected by members of the lower house of Assembly. This, according to some activists, skews the composition of the Eswatini parliament in favour of the monarch and renders the legislature a rubber stamp with limited oversight.

As such, a larger section of pro-democracy activists, led by the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo), has over the years boycotted elections, arguing that their participation would legitimise the prevailing system of government they abhor.

However, newly established political formations, including the Swaziland Liberation Movement (Swalimo), formed by exiled former MP Mduduzi Simelane in 2021, believe in putting more voices inside the Eswatini parliament to amplify calls for political reforms. As such, Swalimo has mobilised its members to stand for elections and to elect individuals who support political reforms. 

The party’s high-ranking officials, including Simelane’s wife, Nomalungelo, popularly known as “LaZwide”, spokesperson Thandaza Silolo and deputy secretary general Paul Matimela, have accepted nomination. 

“Our main target is to echo the call[s] for democracy inside the legislature. We take a leaf from the three MPs; Mduduzi Simelane, Mduduzi Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube,” said Silolo.

Simelane is in exile in the UK, while Mabuza and Dube have been found guilty of terrorism, among other charges. The three legislators ruffled the feathers of those in the higher echelons of power in 2021 when they courageously called for an elected prime minister with executive powers.

Read more here: Eswatini: Further information: MPs’ flawed conviction must be overturned: Mthandeni Dube and Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza – Amnesty International

The participation of some activists in the parliamentary elections has deeply polarised the mass democratic movement in Eswatini to such an extent that those contesting the elections have been accused of being in bed with the regime.

Furthermore, the tense debate on whether to boycott or contest the elections has weakened pro-democracy organisations largely seen as a yoke holding together various political formations with conflicting ideologies.

eswatini election

Kenyan human rights activists in Nairobi protest on 30 January 2023 against the deaths of human rights defenders in Africa, including the killing in Eswatini of human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Daniel Irungu)

In early August, Swalimo and the Swazi Democratic Party (Swadepa), withdrew from the Swaziland Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF), an organisation comprising political parties and civil society groups formed by the late human rights lawyer, Thulani Maseko.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Thulani Maseko murder a blow to Eswatini struggle for democracy — but a boost for the king

Both Swalimo and Swadepa accused the MSF of “bullying” and of taking sides with groups calling for a boycott of the elections.

In a statement issued on 2 August, Swalimo stated: “[…] within the MSF Swalimo has continuously been criticised and victimised for its stance on its programs, including its participation in the national elections. […] Swalimo is convinced that the MSF has failed to be a unifier and to promote political tolerance within its members and allowed the forum to degenerate into an unnecessary battlefield of political ideas,” reads the statement in part.

Silolo, the Swalimo spokesperson, acknowledged to Daily Maverick that pro-democracy activists in Eswatini were currently not seeing eye to eye over the elections. However, he expressed hope that they would iron out their differences once the elections were over.

Meanwhile, Swadepa president Barnes Dlamini, a renowned unionist and champion of workers’ rights, said boycotting the elections had yielded no results in the past, hence his party was contesting the poll.

“Every space must be viewed as a place of struggle and, as such, parliament is no exception,” he said.

However, Pudemo president Mlungisi Makhanya says contesting the parliamentary elections cannot bring about change in Eswatini because the people elected under the current political system “do not constitute a government”. 

“Section 106(a) of the (Eswatini) Constitution is clear that ‘the supreme legislative authority of Swaziland vests in the King – in Parliament’. Subsection (b) of the very section says ‘the King and Parliament may make laws for peace, order and good government in Swaziland.

“The above two points demonstrate how the King is not only clothed with executive authority, but he also enjoys supreme legislative authority,” Makhanya said.

‘Meaningless ritual’

He said Pudemo had consistently boycotted the elections because “they refuse to be an accomplice in fooling the nation into participating in some five-year ritual which is meaningless and impactless”.

Nonetheless, Makhanya said Pudemo respected the autonomy of other political formations to participate in the elections. He further expressed hope that the leaders of the Multi-Stakeholder Forum would continue to engage political groups that had pulled out of the MSF.

Meanwhile, reacting to Swalimo’s decision to withdraw from the MSF, the organisation’s secretary general, Sikelela Dlamini, wished Swalimo and Swadepa well “as they are advancing their own course insofar as the struggle for the attainment of multiparty democracy in Swaziland is concerned”. 

“All organisations reserve the right to join or not to join any organisations,” Dlamini said.

In an earlier interview, Dlamini had told Daily Maverick that the programme of the MSF was disrupted and significantly affected by the death of its founding chairperson, Thulani Maseko, who was murdered in front of his family earlier this year.

Maseko has been described by some observers as the glue that was holding the mass democratic movement together. However, cracks within pro-democracy activists in Eswatini began to emerge months before Maseko was killed.

During the May Day celebrations in 2022, there was a huge brawl involving members of Pudemo and the radical Community Party of Swaziland.

However, notwithstanding their differences in approach and tactics, the different political formations in Eswatini agree there is a need for political reforms and a true democratic dispensation in the kingdom. DM

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