Mbabane, Swaziland – From the deep southern valleys of Nhlangano, to the bustling northern streets of Mbabane, 415,000 Swazi voters are set to elect 55 members of parliament in a political system unique to the landlocked mountain kingdom.
Widely seen as Africa’s last absolute monarchy because of the power King Mswati III wields, opposition activists and some political parties in Swaziland describe Friday’s elections as “selections”. The process does not allow voters to choose a Prime Minister as the holder of this office is appointed by the king.
Since April 12 1973, Swaziland’s monarchy has banned political parties from participating in elections, although they are allowed to exist. To run for political office, candidates stand as independents and if elected, they must be approved by the king in order to become a member of parliament.
Aside from the elected 55 MPs, the king appoints a further 10 MPs to the lower house. Local traditional chiefs who report directly to the monarch also have a decisive role to play in the selection of political candidates. During the preliminary nomination process, the chiefs must accept a candidate otherwise they are not permitted to run for office.
Opposition activists are critical of the tightly controlled selection and approval process and say it is unfair and undemocratic. Lucky Lukhele, spokesperson of the Swaziland Solidarity Network, a Swazi and South African activist movement, criticised the role of the chiefs in lead-up the polls.
“From the primary stages up until now the election has been a selection because of the chieftains’ involvement,” Lukhele told Al Jazeera. “The chiefs decide on who can stand for election and they can decide who people should vote for by telling voters what will happen if they don’t vote for someone.”
A free and fair ‘selection’?
Days before the election, US think-tank and civil rights monitor, Freedom House, issued an extensive report in which Swaziland is described as a “country in crisis” because of the king’s increasingly authoritarian role in the legislative, judicial and executive branches of the state.
We cannot have a free and fair election when we have people in exile, political prisoners and there is press censorship
Swaziland’s biggest opposition party, the People’s United Democratic Movement, PUDEMO, is boycotting the elections.
“We as PUDEMO believe that the national elections are not being held in an environment that is conducive to having free and fair elections,” Mario Masuku the party’s president told Al Jazeera. “We cannot have a free and fair election when we have people in exile, political prisoners and there is press censorship.”
Labelled a terrorist organisation in 2008 after its members were accused of being involved in a bridge bombing close to the king’s residential palace, PUDEMO was banned from operating. In the lead-up to the 2013 elections, at least three of PUDEMO’s members have been arrested and had their homes raided by state officials.
However, the Election and Boundaries Commission (EBC) insists the vote has the conditions to be free and fair.
Friday’s polls have had the highest number of people registered to vote in any recent election, officials said.
Conditions for a fair vote
In contrast to PUDEMO’s objections, independent press monitor, the Media Institute of Southern Africa in Swaziland (MISA), said the atmosphere was sufficient for fair polls to take place.
“The political climate in the country is conducive for free and fair elections despite the ill-preparedness we have seen on the part of the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC),” Vuyisile Hlatshwayo, Director of MISA Swaziland, told Al Jazeera.
“We are happy that the courts are working round the clock to resolve election disputes brought by candidates.”
Ndumiso Dlamini, 25, from Mbabane, the capital is concerned about whether he will be able to vote after he was unable to cast a ballot in the first round of primary elections held last month.
“The last time I wasn’t able to vote because there were so many people and the process of searching for names and checking addresses took so long,” he said. “I have a registered voter’s card which should make it easier and faster, but it doesn’t help. I’m not sure if I will be able to vote, but I will try and go when I finish my shift at work.”
Compliant with the state’s encouragement for citizens exercise their voting rights, Sibusiso Vilakazi, 35, from Manzini, the second largest city, told Al Jazeera, “I am voting today because I have to. It’s a holiday so we have to go and choose our leaders”.
Dreaming of democracy
Many in the opposition, however, remain unconvinced about the electoral process. “We will not compromise our democratic principles for a vote; we don’t believe in the credibility of the system,” insisted Masuku. “We will not legitimise an illegitimate process by standing for parliament.”
The opposition leader called on the international community to use its influence and urge the Swazi government to make more democratic reforms. Masuku said Swaziland was bound by international views on rights as signatory to a number of conventions, including the UN Declaration on Human Rights, the African Union’s Charter on People and Human Rights, and the Southern African Development Community’s regional guidelines on elections.
“The global community should encourage political stakeholders in Swaziland to hold a national dialogue towards holding a national assembly that will enable discussion of democratic reforms,” he said.
Pessimistic om the role the international observers could play in the non-party polls, activist Lukhele said: “This election does not even conform to the basic regional guidelines on multi-party elections so it should be boycotted. There is nothing to observe.”
But boycott or not, the vote is still pressing on.
As hundreds of thousands of voters cast their ballots across Swaziland in the hope of ushering in a new parliament to serve King and country, the election has little hope of bringing tangible political or socio-economic reforms, critics said. Almost half of the population lives in extreme poverty and as the country with the world’s highest HIV infection rate, Swaziland’s future crucially depends on a government that can deliver democratic and social change to the people.
Follow Tendai Marima on Twitter: @i_amten