Swaziland's secretive and corrupt campaigning

The Swazi authorities might have removed political parties from the electoral playing field, but they seem to have totally failed to remove corruption. Indeed, the convoluted laws governing campaigning in national elections have only served to entrench the use of dubious means to canvass for votes.

May 28th, 2013

The Swazi authorities might have removed political parties from the electoral playing field, but they seem to have totally failed to remove corruption. Indeed, the convoluted laws governing campaigning in national elections have only served to entrench the use of dubious means to canvass for votes.

Part of the problem is that the electorate knows very little about the candidates since they are only allowed to openly and actively campaign during the last month before the polls. In addition, the powerful state-controlled broadcast media is bizarrely not allowed to feature either Members of Parliament or their potential opponents – not only stifling political debate but also making it extremely hard for any candidate to reach out to the electorate through normal means.

In every other SADC country, candidates would at least be able to fall back on party political affiliation even if they weren’t allowed to campaign directly. But not in Swaziland where political parties are regarded as threats rather than a fundamental component of a functioning democracy. And King Mswati III shows no sign of bowing to demands from civil society and the Swazi people to replace the undemocratic Tinkhundla system, where people can only be elected to office due to ‘personal merit’, with a multi-party democracy – so it’s up to individuals to fight (or rather ‘bribe’) their way to prominence in their constituencies.

And with the elections scheduled for August, food and drink are flowing freely as candidates try to win votes without ‘campaigning’ – since this is still the registration stage of the electoral period, when no one is allowed to directly appeal to potential voters.

Indeed, the (EBC) – pointing to the Constitution and Electoral Act of 1992 – has repeatedly warned aspiring MPs about campaigning too soon. Even the Elections Bill 2013, which is – absurdly – still being debated in Parliament even though the registration process for this year’s elections has already begun, is no different. “Canvassing for votes during primary elections is prohibited,” states Section 39 of the Bill.

The result is that MPs and other prospective candidates are using surreptitious means to build support and the EBC does not seem to know what to do about it. Strategies involve throwing community parties for the elderly, sponsoring soccer matches for the youth or simply – and unashamedly – dishing out cash.

Even cabinet ministers are caught up in this farcical period of ‘campaigning while not campaigning’ and find themselves spending more time – and a lot more money – in their Tinkhundlas (constituencies) rather than in their offices.

The Minister of Health, Benedict Xaba, in his Shiselweni II constituency in order to hold some sporting activities that he had sponsored. Needless to say, he saw nothing wrong with this.

Meanwhile, his cabinet colleague, the Minister of Sports, Culture and Youth Affairs, Hlobisile Ndlovu, has already been in the town of Piggs Peak, where she will stand for election – under the pretext that she was “helping people from her constituency.” Again, she said there was nothing wrong with her conduct.

And the flamboyant was also caught throwing a party for the elderly in his constituency and handing out food parcels. But this was also just part of the constituency's 'charity programme' - not campaigning. 

Outcries from their competitors have been met with a shrug of the shoulders from the EBC and assertions that ‘there is no proof of campaigning’. However, it was clear that the EBC chairperson, Chief Gija, was becoming frustrated by these murky acts and was quoted several times in the media telling voters to “take whatever they give you because you’ll be alone at the ballot box.”

. “The hosting of such thanksgiving parties makes a mockery of the whole elections process thus rendering it completely useless,” said Chief Gija. “This should come to an end forthwith. Such premature campaigns cast doubts on the general election process in the eyes of global community.”

It will be interesting to see how potential candidates react as they have very little option, especially as they cannot take to the airwaves. For some reason, the government seems intent on keeping the electorate as ignorant as possible about the people they are going to elect to office – going so far as to ban MPs from being featured on Swazi TV and Radio Swaziland because the Cabinet disapproved of them using the airwaves to campaign by highlighting their ‘achievements’. The vast majority of Swazis get their news from these two channels but there is no point in turning them on if you’re looking for information on potential candidates.

It is an extraordinary system – designed it seems to keep people in the dark for as long as possible. Its supporters point to the Constitution, which – in Section 86(5) – appears to support the ban against ‘premature campaigning’. However, law experts say the provisions in the Bill of Rights supporting the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association should take precedence.

Clearly they should – and would – in any genuine democracy. But Swaziland is very far from that. Meanwhile, the elections – or rather ‘selections’ – are nearly here and the race is heating up, even if no one is allowed to admit to being part of it.

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