JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - Voters in the tiny African nation of Swaziland are choosing a parliament. But critics say the poll in Africa’s last absolute monarchy is a sham. They include the U.S.-based watchdog Freedom House, which this week issued a scathing condemnation of the system that gives the king full executive powers.
As voters in the landlocked African nation of Swaziland mulled over their ballots Friday, there remained one very important figure whose position they are not allowed to challenge.
King Mswati the third has led this nation since 1986, and as the nation’s chief executive, has final say over all decisions. After voters choose 55 legislators on Friday, he will choose 10 additional MPs and name a prime minister. The king is an outsized figure in his tiny country: many Swazis live in dire poverty against the backdrop of the king’s lavish lifestyle.
Swazi activist Kenneth Kunene, who is a harsh critic of the king and head of Swaziland’s banned communist party, is part of a coalition that called for a boycott of the poll. Elections are held every five years.
Kunene spent election day in South Africa - just 100 meters from the border of his home country. He said he had not been able to return since 2005 out of fear of arrest and persecution. He spoke to VOA during an anti-vote demonstration at South Africa’s Jeppes Reef border post.
“We view the elections or the process of the polling as a sham process ... And again further that the world institutions, including SADC and its member countries, must further call them as no elections as in Swaziland, on the fact that they are undemocratic, because political parties are not allowed to participate in Swaziland, political opposition is intimidated, it’s criminalized and their leaders and its activists are being arrested daily,” he said.
But Swaziland’s Electoral Commission spokesman, Sabelo Dlamini, said that the poll was legitimate and that voters were enthusiastic.
Just days before Friday’s vote, U.S.-based watchdog Freedom House issued a report that harshly criticized the country’s political landscape.
“It might be difficult for somebody who lives in a democracy to imagine a situation where all of the powers of the state and quite a large part of the economy of the state is controlled by just one man," said the agency’s Johannesburg-based project director, Cathal Gilbert.
"It’s sort of inconceivable to us who live in developed democracies to think that could happen, but that is in fact exactly what’s happening in 2013 in Swaziland, in what is a small country hidden away on the borders of South Africa, where 1.2 million people survive under a monarchy that has taken all of the powers of the state, that controls the judiciary completely, that rules over a parliament with absolutely no powers, and that has plundered the resources of the country to such an extent that they can only afford to spend $23 dollars a year on healthcare for each Swazi.”
The king - estimated to be worth some $200 million - is often criticized for his lavish lifestyle for himself and his dozen wives, and extravagant annual birthday parties. Freedom House’s report estimates that he controls 60 percent of Swaziland’s economy.
South Africa is Swaziland's main trading partner and may be able to exert financial pressure on the regime. In 2011, the king failed to secure a $240 million loan from South Africa, after he refused to accept some of the loan conditions, such as political reforms. Gilbert said civil society groups within Swaziland lobbied South Africa to impose those conditions -- a clear sign, he said, that Swazis wanted to see democratic transformation.