Swaziland's electoral circus

The drama that played out during Swaziland’s primary elections last month provided yet more evidence of the sad circus that is Swazi politics. In fact, the country – recently renamed a “monarchical democracy” by King Mswati III – presents a perfect case study on how not to run elections.

September 10th, 2013

The drama that played out during Swaziland’s primary elections last month provided yet more evidence of the sad circus that is Swazi politics. In fact, the country – recently renamed a “monarchical democracy” by King Mswati III – presents a perfect case study on how not to run elections.

The first round of the polls conducted at chiefdom level on August 24th was marred by a host of irregularities, which are likely to be repeated during the final round of elections on September 20th because the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) is in denial.

Indeed, setting aside the fact that political parties are still not allowed to contest the elections despite Swaziland’s constitution enshrining the rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression, the running of the electoral process still left a lot to be desired – even by Swazi standards.

For a start, there was the use of archaic customary practices to discriminate against women who wanted to participate in the elections. An EBC official disqualified Mana Mavimbela soon after she was nominated on the basis that she was wearing trousers. The nominations were held at a school in her chiefdom and she saw nothing wrong with wearing trousers because she was not going to the royal kraal, where women must appear in skirts or dresses.

But despite the law being on her side, Mavimbela was thrown out of the race.

When she lodged a complaint with the EBC, it turned a blind eye so she was forced to go to court, which ruled in her favour and reinstated her to the parliamentary race where she was competing with three men.

Sadly, she was not the only woman subjected to harassment during the elections in a country where women are still considered minors. An outgoing MP, Jennifer Du Pont, lost when her chief, Prince Magudvulela, warned voters at a meeting in her presence against electing a woman who is still in mourning. Du Pont lost her husband in May but only stayed inside mourning him for a month and refused to wear the traditional mourning gowns, which some widows wear for two years.

And she was well within her rights as the constitution clearly gives her the right not to undergo a customary practice that she is conscientiously opposed to.

However, her chief, who also happens to be one of the outgoing Senators appointed by King Mswati, rubbished the constitution saying customary law was superior. And at a meeting held a week before the primary elections, Magudvulela told his subjects that the King would not be able to work with someone who is still in mourning.

Just like Mavimbela, Du Pont lodged a complaint with the EBC but to no avail. The EBC did not even respond, let alone conduct any investigations. Left with no choice, she, too, took the matter to court, where she is challenging the outcome of the election on the basis that her chief campaigned – and discriminated – against her by using her status as a widow. The case is still pending.

And it is likely that the court will be faced with more cases from aggrieved aspiring MPs, who have already complained to the EBC and the media about the way the elections were conducted.

While campaigning before the end of the primary elections is prohibited, the EBC has no mechanism to prevent it and a lot of candidates did campaign before the legally allowed period began. Even so, it is one of the many absurdities of the current system that Swazis are forced to vote for people they hardly know because aspiring MPs are not allowed to campaign until after the primary elections.

Other aspiring MPs claimed that some of their opponents – contrary to the law – were transporting voters from other chiefdoms to vote for them. Voting in some polling stations went on late into the night, yet there was inadequate lighting leading to allegations of rigging.

The EBC has refused to acknowledge these problems. Instead, its deputy chairman, Mzwandile Fakudze, told the ‘losers’ to accept defeat and move on. What is worse, King Mswati – the ‘monarchical democrat’ himself – endorsed the primary elections a few days later saying they were free and fair.

And as every Swazi knows, the King’s word is law. 

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