Voters in Swaziland are voting Friday in parliamentary elections that critics are calling a sham because political parties have been banned and most power rests with the king. VOA's Scott Bobb reports from our Southern Africa Bureau in Johannesburg.
Many of Swaziland's 400,000 eligible voters turned out early to vote. The head of the observer mission of the Pan-African Parliament, Mary Mugyenyi said the balloting was orderly.
"The election officials are conducting the exercise in a manner that is very well organized. People are lining up in an organized manner. They seem to be choosing freely who they want to vote for," she said.
Candidates were competing for 55 seats in the new parliament. Swaziland's king, Mswati III, chooses the 10 remaining parliament members as well as the next prime minister and cabinet.
Swaziland is one of the few remaining absolute monarchies. Although a two-year-old constitution allows political activity, political parties have been banned for 35 years and as a result candidates ran as independents.
On the eve of the vote, police blocked protests by trade unions and opposition politicians who tried to blockade border posts. Several leaders were reportedly detained.
A leader of the banned Peoples United Democratic Movement or PUDEMO, Vincent Dlamini, said they were protesting an undemocratic system established by royal decree.
"We are demanding that elections must be held under a multi-party democratic system. This current system came into place by the banning of political parties in 1973," he said.
Monitor Mugyenyi said Swaziland falls short of meeting a major principle of free and fair elections because of the ban on political parties. But she noted that the system was adopted after popular constitutional consultations.
"The majority of the population, ordinary person identifies political parties with violence and there is a general feeling that political parties would divide the Swazi people," said Mugyenyi.
But opposition leader Dlamini says 70 percent of the Swazi population is rural and controlled by village chiefs loyal to the monarchy.
"The chiefs run the rural areas, and the villages, on behalf of the monarch and they tend to intimidate people. They tend to evict those who do not conform to the dictates of the ruling regime," said Dlamini.
Supporters of the monarchy say the system serves to protect Swazi traditions and avoids violent confrontation which has afflicted some other countries in the region.
But analysts say popular discontent is rising with an expensive monarchy that is seen by some as failing to address rising food and fuel prices, 40 percent unemployment and one of the world's highest incidences of HIV/AIDS.