Eswatini monarchy poised for contentious parliamentary elections with pro-democracy opposition on back foot
The tiny southern African kingdom, sandwiched by South Africa and Mozambique, goes to the polls on Friday to elect Members of Parliament under an electoral system that excludes political parties.
Eswatini activists contesting parliamentary elections with the objective of fighting for democratic reforms from within the legislature have allegedly faced harassment and intimidation from traditional leaders and anti-political reform proponents.
Following violent pro-democracy protests against the monarchy in June 2021 — which left over 50 people dead — some activists have opted to contest this year’s parliamentary elections with the goal of influencing democratic reforms from within the Eswatini legislature, which has for years been dominated by traditionalists and pro-monarchy politicians.
Read more in Daily Maverick: The Eswatini massacre one year on – lest we forget
Led by the Swaziland Liberation Movement (Swalimo), a party formed by exiled former MP Mduduzi Simelane, the activists contesting the elections are hoping to influence legislative changes that would stir Eswatini towards a fully democratic dispensation.
However, the activists contesting the elections have faced myriad hurdles including alleged intimidation and harassment by traditional authorities, who play a significant role in the Eswatini electoral process.
Additionally, some activists have accused the Eswatini elections body (Elections and Boundaries Commission, EBC) of bending to the will of some in the upper echelons of power, who want the legislature to remain purely pro-monarchy.
The EBC has indicated that a total of 583000 voters had registered in these polls.
Timothy Myeni, a popular gospel artist and legislator in the 2018-2023 parliament, was the first proponent of democratic reforms to cry foul after he was disqualified from contesting the 2023 parliamentary elections.
Myeni had supported the 2021 pro-democracy protests and was vocal in parliament — calling for justice for protesters killed and maimed during the 2021 political unrest. He further openly supported the two incarcerated legislators, who have since been convicted for terrorism amongst other charges.
The EBC claimed there had been objections to Myeni’s inclusion in the voter roll under the Lubuli constituency yet he is a resident of Nkilongo constituency. Though Myeni was elected under Nkilongo constituency for the 2018-2023 term, he had previously represented the people of Lubuli constituency for 10 years (2003-2013). Myeni ran to the Eswatini high court seeking redress but his matter was referred back to the EBC which subsequently disqualified him.
Many activists believe Myeni was victimised for openly calling for democratic reforms. But there is another theory postulating that Myeni may have been seen as a threat to the re-election campaign of outgoing Lubuli constituency MP and Minister of Economic Planning and Development Dr Tambo Gina, who is openly pro-establishment.
Obstruction by traditional authorities
Meanwhile, supporters of Nomalungelo ‘LaZwide’ Simelane, the wife of the former MP exiled in the UK, are also crying foul and accusing traditional authorities of harassing and intimidating her. Nomalungelo, who won elections last year to replace her exiled husband, looks set to win again this year after winning the preliminary round last month with a landslide.
Simelane was recently summoned by traditional authorities of her community KaMkweli to answer for her campaign strategy, which involved addressing prospective voters from a vehicle fitted with a very loud sound system.
The Times of Eswatini reported on September 21, 2023 that the Chief of KaMkweli Prince Mshengu had ordered Nomalungelo “to desist from using the sound system”. EBC Spokesperson Mbonisi Bhembe was quoted in the same article saying “there was nothing wrong with the campaign strategy used by Simelane”.
On Wednesday, September 27, 2023, Nomalungelo had planned a massive final campaign rally at Siphofaneni bus rank to be headlined by South African Kwaito artist Bonginkosi ‘Zola’ Dlamini. However, the event was stopped at the 11th hour by a district governor. The Times of Eswatini reported that the office of the Lubombo Regional Administrator (RA) had stopped the event “amid concerns by some vendors at the Siphofaneni Market, that they lost revenue during a previous thanksgiving show hosted by [Nomalungelo]”.
Following the cancellation of the rally, Swalimo released a statement, stating, “It must be mentioned that proper norms and consultations were done as procedural and a green light was granted by the relevant structures and stakeholders of the area where the bus rank is situated, but due to chieftaincy disputes and other forces of interest, there were qualms and the Regional Administrator chose to frustrate the road show”.
The rally was shifted to an alternative venue. Swalimo Spokesperson Thandaza Silolo told Daily Maverick that despite the efforts of the EBC to deliver a credible election, there remain existential issues frustrating election hopefuls, specifically pro-democracy activists.
“What was and is still being done to Make LaZwide is [also happening] to many nominees […] around the country. Traditional leaders play a role that can never be clarified[..],” said Silolo.
He added that the attitude of traditional authorities towards pro-democracy activists contesting the elections was an indication that those in the higher echelons of power allegedly “do not respect the right of the citizenry to elect people of their choice”. Instead, he said, traditional authorities seemingly want to detect who must be voted into parliament.
Pro-democracy activists in firing line
Barnes Dlamini, the President of the Swazi Democratic Party (Swadepa), told Daily Maverick that the harassment of pro-democracy activists contesting the elections was “the order of the day”. “We have learnt to live with it. […] we mourn no more. Our resolute is to impact society,” he said.
He believes the hostile behaviour of traditional authorities towards pro-democracy activists running for the elections reflects an overall attitude of the powers that be towards those who want to use the legislature to bring about change.
According to Dlamini, since traditional authorities are an extension of the monarchy, they are expected to toe the line in frustrating the campaigns of those who want to utilise existing state institutions to engender a democratic dispensation.
Dlamini did not mention names of Swadepa members who have allegedly been harassed by traditional authorities. However, when the election process commenced in May, ordinary members of Swadepa, who had been employed as election officers, were expelled by the EBC. Local media reported at the time that one member of Swadepa was fired after he was spotted during May Day wearing the party’s regalia.
On another note, other activists have alleged that anti-political reform proponents in positions of power have denied them access to schools and other institutions with prospective voters. Paul Matimela, Swalimo Deputy Secretary General, told Daily Maverick that he was denied access to two schools under his constituency. But notwithstanding the challenges they are facing, Matimela is confident that they would influence change in the event they make it to parliament.
“We want to change the laws that do not serve the people. We want to bring about change that will bring about good governance and service delivery,” he said.
EBC Spokesperson Mbonisi Bhembe said the elections body has done all it could to ensure that the elections are credible, free and fair. He added that the EBC has an obligation to ensure that the elections adhere not only to the Eswatini constitution but to international standards and to the principles of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.
Bhembe said the EBC has not received any formal complaints from candidates alleging to have been harassed and intimidated by traditional leaders. He said they have only read about reports of harassment of pro-democracy candidates in the media.
He further said that, before the commencement of the elections, the EBC had educated traditional leaders about the elections process and further advised them not to interfere in electoral matters, as their interference could impact the credibility of the elections.
Government rejects intimidation claims
Meanwhile, outgoing Eswatini Prime Minister Cleopas Dlamini, who was appointed into the position by King Mswati III in July 2021 following the political unrest, told journalists on Tuesday that the parliamentary elections were an opportunity for “emaSwati to speak for themselves through their votes”.
“What the voting exercise means is that people should vote for the candidates that they want because, two years ago, this is what people were calling for — to vote for who they want and the government they want. […] This is a clear indication that emaSwati are happy to vote for their ideal government and for their preferred system of governance,” Dlamini said.
During the political unrest in June 2021, activists demanded an elected Prime Minister with executive powers while other radical groups called for an overthrow of the monarchy.
No powers to hold monarchy to account
The Eswatini legislature comprises two houses; the lower House of Assembly and the upper House of Senate. The electorate can only elect 59 out of the 69 members of the lower house. The remaining 10 members are appointed by the King.
No member of the upper House of Senate is elected by the people. 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 a limited oversight role.
Aspiring legislators can only stand as independents since there is no legislative framework enabling political parties to contest the elections. Elected legislators enjoy parliamentary privilege, they can pass or block bills and they can also pass a vote of no confidence on the cabinet. But they have no constitutional powers to hold the monarch to account or to debate the royal budget.
The Commonwealth, African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have all deployed missions to observe the Eswatini elections. On Tuesday, 26 September, 2023, the SADC Observer mission, led by former Zambian Vice President Enock P Kavindele met with officials from the Eswatini Ministry of Justice, the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Eswatini, several civil society organisations and political formations that have boycotted the elections. DM