Last African absolute monarchy is gearing for Polls

Inside – but still outside – South Africa, the small mountain kingdom of Swaziland votes for a new parliament today, in an election dismissed by critics as a rubber stamp for King Mswati III’s absolutistic royal rule. Just over a third of the monarch’s 1.2 million “loyal” subjects are registered to cast their votes for in total 55 members of the Swazi Parliament, who are hand-picked by the traditional chiefs, who – in turn – are loyal to the king. Political parties are not formally banned, but are restricted, and the country remains sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarchy and King Mswati III still holds the ultimate sway over the government, he can veto new laws, dissolve “his” parliament and may not be sued or charged.

Opposition groups like the banned political party PUDEMO and South Africa-based Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN) have called for a boycott of the poll. “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,” said US-based rights group Freedom House in a damning report this month.

h3. Fiscal Crisis

But 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 and fiscal stability. Locked between Mozambique and South Africa, Swaziland remains one of the world’s poorest countries, though its monarch is said to be worth around US$ 200m. Around 70% of the population live below the poverty line, according to the UN. At the same time, 31% of adults live with HIV/AIDS, according to last year’s survey. 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. King Mswati has 13 wives and last weekend announced his engagement to soon-to-be-wife no. fourteen. The queens each have their own palaces and are notorious for overseas shopping sprees. Swaziland relies on the regional Southern African Customs Union for almost half of public revenues, according to UK-based think tank Chatham House. But exactly this revenue is set to drop dramatically in coming years when SACU changes its pay-outs. “The country’s economic trajectory is unsustainable,” researcher Chris Vandome wrote recently in an article on the Chatham House website.

h3. Serious Abuses

“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.” Social upheaval is rather uncommon, though police have crushed the few peaceful protests that occurred in the country over the past years. Two weeks ago they broke up a fact-finding mission of international trade unionists after detaining a few. “Human rights reports on Swaziland have cited serious abuses including killings by security forces, torture and beatings of pro-democracy activists, [and] arbitrary arrests,” said Freedom House in their report that branded the country a “failed feudal state”.

Elections are held every five years after which the King appoints a new prime minister. Current 71-year old Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini has governed since 2008, and also held power from 1996 to 2003.

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