Swaziland elects new faces for an old order

The king continues to choose the prime minister, but some cabinet ministers were ousted in a push for change.

King Mswati III remains Swaziland's most powerful figure following Friday's vote [AFP]

Mbabane, Swaziland – Days after the second round of parliamentary elections were held on Friday, Swaziland prepares itself for a new parliament with legislators drawn from all sides of the political spectrum. At least 46 MPs serving in the outgoing parliament, including six government ministers, have not been re-elected. Winners include staunch supporters of the monarchy and anti-government activists, such as Jan Sithole, a former trade unionist and leader of the Swaziland Democratic Party (SWADEPA), a prominant opposition group.

Sithole won his seat North in Manzini, the second largest city, beating Macford Sibandze, the disgraced former Minister of Environment and Tourism.

In the capital, Mbabane, the only woman among the current crop of winners, Esther Dlamini was re-elected. Deputy Speaker in the outgoing parliament, Dlamini was re-elected for the third time in a landslide victory of 2,030 votes against her male competitors who each received less than 900 ballots.

In 2008 at least five women were elected as MPs, but in 2013, female representation has been marginal, raising concerns from the African Union Election Observer Mission which recommended the kingdom address the gender imbalance in order to have more equitable representation in the next election in 2018.

Winners and losers peacefully accepted the results of Friday’s vote, despite allegations of electoral corruption and bribery swirling around the tiny mountain kingdom. Swaziland’s traditional electoral system, however, remains the main focus of controversy, protest and international scrutiny.

Prohibitive electoral system?

Under the tinkhundla electoral system, political parties are not allowed to take part in elections, this prohibition has been a source of long-standing tensions between the state and opposition movements who say the 1973 ban is undemocratic and repressive. The country’s largest opposition group, the People’s United Democratic Movement, PUDEMO, boycotted this year’s polls, calling the elections undemocratic “selections” designed to shore up the King’s power rather than reflect the electorate’s wishes.

Under the system, the king choses the prime minister and appoints 10 MPs to the parliament where voters elect 55 MPs, although potential candidates need to be approved by the king. 

Vote ballots counted in Swaziland

The African Union Election Observer Mission preliminary report issued on Monday has urged for a review of Swaziland’s electoral system so it conforms with the fundamental rights of freedom of association and assembly guaranteed in the AU’s African People’s Charter on People and Human Rights. The Swazi government disputes that view. 

“People have a choice, our elections are democratic,” Sabelo Dlamini, spokesperson of the Election and Boundaries Commission (EBC),  told Al Jazeera. “People are able choose someone from their community, someone they can relate to, someone they know and there is nothing more democratic than that.”

However, some Swazis feel differently.

Sabelo Mavuso, a 33-year-old resident from the capital said he was concerned about the lack of accountability of elected officials under the non-party system.

“I’m not happy with the way the elections take place here, but I’m just an individual there’s nothing I can do. The system is not right because we vote, but we don’t see the changes the politicians promise,” said Mavuso. “I think the party system would be better because a political party can change a person who is not performing, but with individual candidates it takes five years to change a person.” 

The vast majority of winners of Friday’s election were new MPs. Several cabinet ministers lost their seats while candidates belonging to opposition groups made new gains. 

However Mario Masuku, programme Manager for Swaziland for the Open Society Initiative, a regional human rights and governance organisation, was sceptical of the possibility of changing things from within because the new parliament was still composed of hardliners supportive of the tinkhundla system.

“The change in MPs is not an unprecedented event, it’s happened before and will not bring any change. The elected MPs are still under the same laws as before and the King still has all the power,” Masuku told Al Jazeera. 

“The change in leaders reflects a choice of faces rather than a choice of ideas, the electorate wants to see different faces. But those leaders won’t be able to bring change.”

Source: Al Jazeera