JOHANNESBURG - The tiny African nation of eSwatini is officially holding its first set of elections Friday under its new name, which was bestowed by the king in April. Critics say this poll is nothing but a pretense of democracy in the state, that was known as Swaziland, until the king unilaterally changed the name to celebrate the nation's 50th anniversary of independence from Britain.
Voters will choose 55 parliamentarians to fill the lower house in this nation of some 1.3 million people. King Mswati III, who has ruled since 1986 with unlimited constitutional powers, gets to choose another 10 legislators.
VOA made multiple attempts to reach government officials to discuss the elections, but calls and messages were not returned. The government’s official website makes no pretense of eSwatini being an ordinary democracy, describing the king as being “born to rule,” and “the only absolute monarch in Africa who rules his country with a firm hand.”
'Is there any freedom?'
Political activist Kenneth Kunene, the general-secretary of the nation’s Communist Party, says he is not sorry to be missing this historic occasion. Political parties like his are banned from participating in elections. And since 2005, he has lived in exile just outside the enclave nation, which is surrounded on all sides by South Africa and Mozambique. Rights groups have frequently criticized the government for curbing freedoms and rights, and Kunene says he agrees.
“In Swaziland, is there any freedom of expression?" he told VOA. "People, they want to express themselves, they are shot dead, they are beaten, they are silenced, and others are forced to leave the county in whatever way. And so, under such circumstances, can there be elections? We say no.”
Taking to the streets
In recent days, Swazis have expressed themselves in large numbers, with hundreds of public sector workers taking to the streets of the nation’s four largest towns to demand higher wages and government reforms. In the commercial hub of Manzini, they were met with police force, including stun grenades and beatings, which drew condemnation from rights groups.
Chris Ngwenya, an organizer from the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress, was there. He says these protests are about far more than just wages and work conditions — they are, he said, political as well.
“The workers are also, you know, demonstrating, or venting out against, the high levels of unemployment that are prevailing in the country amidst the grand corruption that we see," he told VOA. "Workers are also reflecting their frustrations with the shortages of drugs and medications in hospitals. Workers are also, you know, showing their displeasure with the way the country is being governed.”
Like Kunene, Ngwenya says he holds little hope of change with this poll. His party, the country's oldest, says only one thing can bring real change. And like everything in this tiny nation, it all comes down to one man’s decision.
“Our view has been that that the monarch must modernize," he said. "Our view has been that the king must relinquish, you know, certain political power. Our view has been that the powers of the monarch need to be curtailed so that the power to govern, or the power to actually form a government, can rest with the majority of the people.”