Elections in Africa’s last absolute monarchy

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The last absolute monarchy on the African continent, the Kingdom of Eswatini, is set to conduct parliamentary elections today, despite the prohibition of political parties from participating.

The nation’s constitution underscores the importance of “individual merit” as the criterion for selecting lawmakers, who are not allowed to have affiliations with any political entities. The favour of King Mswati III, who holds absolute authority, carries significant weight in this process.

Approximately 585,000 registered voters will be called upon to elect 59 members of the lower house of parliament, which primarily serves as an advisory body to the monarch. King Mswati, who possesses the power to veto any legislation, will personally appoint an additional 10 legislators.

Given that most candidates align themselves with the king, the election is unlikely to bring about any notable shifts in the political landscape of the kingdom, formerly known as Swaziland.

Out of those nominated in the recent primaries, only about a dozen are known to have ties to the opposition. Many remain undisclosed about their political leanings due to fears of repression. While political parties technically have the right to exist since a new constitution in 2005 allowed for freedom of association, there remains no practical means for them to register, according to the democracy watchdog Freedom House. Swalimo, for example, is registered as a non-profit organization. The People’s United Democratic Movement, one of the largest opposition movements, has been labelled a terrorist organisation and subsequently banned, and two opposition lawmakers, elected in the previous 2018 election, are presently incarcerated, while a third remains in exile.

Many opposition groups have called for a boycott, although three have urged voters to participate.

Campaigning activities have been minimal during the two-week campaign period. The polls opened at 7AM local time (05:00 GMT) and will close at 6 PM, with results anticipated over the weekend.

Eswatini, a landlocked country with a population of 1.2 million, is situated between South Africa and Mozambique. King Mswati, who has ruled with an iron fist for 37 years, ascended to the throne at the age of 18. Constitutionally, he holds a position above the law and possesses the authority to appoint the prime minister, cabinet members, dissolve parliament and the government, and command the police and army.

Instances of dissent are rare, but in 2021, pro-democracy protests shook the kingdom. Security forces forcefully suppressed demonstrations advocating for reforms, resulting in dozens of casualties. A curfew was imposed, demonstrations were banned, and internet access was restricted. Protests have intermittently persisted since the crackdown.

Earlier this year, human rights lawyer and government critic Thulani Maseko was fatally shot through the window of his residence. Hours before his murder, the king had warned activists who opposed him not to expect sympathy when “mercenaries” targeted them.

The United Nations has called for an independent investigation into these incidents.

Referred to as “Ngwenyama,” which means “the lion” in SiSwati, the king has faced widespread criticism for his opulent lifestyle while nearly 60 percent of the population lives on less than $1.90 per day. King Mswati, often seen in public wearing traditional attire, is known for his affinity for luxury cars and watches. In 2018, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of independence, he renamed the country Eswatini, signifying “the land of the Swazis.”

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