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Swaziland Holds Parliamentary Elections Saturday - 2003-10-17

Voters in Swaziland go to the polls Saturday for parliamentary elections. It is likely to be the last election held there without a constitution. The tiny, landlocked country is the only absolute monarchy in sub-Saharan Africa, and is under pressure to democratize.

About a quarter of Swaziland's one million people are eligible to vote, and turnout is expected to be relatively low, as it was for the last parliamentary election five years ago.

Several Swazi pro-democracy movements have called for a boycott of the poll, charging that the country's whole political process is undemocratic. Under the current political system, the parliament debates policy matters and advises the king, but does not pass legislation. The king can issue an executive order to overrule any decision that parliament does make.

Political parties are illegal in Swaziland, although a few opposition groups remain active and have made strenuous calls for the kingdom to democratize. The international community has also put increasing pressure Swaziland to move toward a more democratic system of government. It is the only country in southern Africa that does not have some kind of multi-party system.

But things are slowly changing. The country's absolute monarch, King Mswati, asked his brother to lead a committee that recently drafted a new proposed constitution, which includes more protection for civil liberties and political rights.

Swaziland is a member of the Commonwealth group of nations, which sent several constitutional experts to the country as advisers during the drafting of the document.

Earlier this week, Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon told reporters the constitutional committee had to strike a delicate balance between democratization and custom.

"There is a real challenge there to establish a constitution which recognizes contemporary expectations of people in Swaziland, as well as acknowledging the traditional cultural values of that country," he said.

King Mswati's father, King Sobhuza, suspended Swaziland's constitution in 1973 and banned all political parties, saying they were incompatible with Swazi custom. The late king drafted a replacement constitution a few years later, but it was never presented to the Swazi people for their approval, as required by Swazi custom.

That process is under way for the new constitution right now. King Mswati is presenting his draft to the people, but this election is being held under the old political system.

Even once the new constitution is adopted, political parties will still be outlawed for the first five years. And some pro-democracy and women's rights groups have complained that the new rights guaranteed by the document are still secondary to Swazi custom.

In the meantime, Swazi officials are hoping Saturday's parliamentary poll will demonstrate the country's commitment to holding free and fair elections, despite fairly widespread apathy. Voters will choose 55 members of the lower house of parliament, and the king will appoint another 10. The upper house has 20 elected seats and another 10 appointed ones.

Analysts say it is likely that most of the cabinet will be drawn from those appointed lawmakers, since some of the sitting cabinet members were voted out in a primary election earlier this year.