Winners and losers in Swazi elections

The fact that only one of the 55 elected seats in Swaziland’s parliament was won by a woman exposes the inefficiency – and inequality – of a system that places the burden getting elected solely on individuals. Indeed, the sole female winner, Esther Dlamini, described this year’s contest as the most difficult she has been participated in and said she was not willing to enter the race in 2018.

October 16th, 2013

The fact that only one of the 55 elected seats in Swaziland’s parliament was won by a woman exposes the inefficiency – and inequality – of a system that places the burden getting elected solely on individuals. Indeed, the sole female winner, Esther Dlamini, described this year’s contest as the most difficult she has been participated in and said she was not willing to enter the race in 2018.

Individual candidates have to fork out money from their own pockets to finance their election campaigns, which results in a lot of women falling by the wayside because they cannot afford the cost of competing – especially in as patriarchal a society as Swaziland where women rarely have control over their families’ funds. And particularly in the 2013 elections, which analysts have described as the most expensive ever – with many candidates funding rallies and campaign costs from their own sources and running up bills of more than US$10,000.

Critics of the Tinkhundla system have always argued that elections based on so-called individual merit place a serious financial burden on individuals since they cannot rely on party political funds – and logistics – to help them secure victory.

And the spending does not stop then. When in office, MPs are usually faced with people from their constituencies who pop in from time to time asking for services that should otherwise be met by the government. Some MPs in previous parliaments have provided their constituencies with ambulances, sponsored soccer matches and water projects. They have also – from time to time – donated coffins and bread to their poor community members – and there are a lot of them given that 63 percent of all Swazis live below the poverty line.

But the polls did allow Swazis to display their displeasure at the performance of their previous MPs. Remarkably, only 20 percent of MPs were re-elected. And Cabinet ministers did not fare any better with only two of the eight that stood for election in the final round being returned to parliament.

However, it is unclear whether Swazis booted so many former MPs out because of poor parliamentary performance or because they did not deliver on their previous (probably vote winning) promises to bring development to their constituencies.

Usually their performance as legislators, where they are supposed to not only pass laws but also keep the executive in check, is not considered by voters, who are probably aware that they have little real power in the absolutist system and who are, anyway, more interested in the services that MPs can deliver to them.

“There is a poor understanding of what an MP is supposed to do,” complained former Minister of Health, Benedict Xaba, who was criticised by voters in his constituency for not delivering enough. “People expect you to deliver development projects and, if you fail, they say you haven’t done anything even when you have performed well as an MP and Minister.”

He said there was a need to overhaul the Tinkhundla system so that the roles of MPs are clearly defined to prevent voters from confusing them with development workers.

It is, therefore, interesting that former trade unionist, Jan Sithole, entered the race and won a seat in this year’s election – under a system he always criticised during his 27 years as Secretary General of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU).

However, in 2011 Sithole formed the Swaziland Democratic Party (SWADEPA) and opted to participate in this year’s polls as an ‘individual’ so as to influence the governing of the country from the ‘inside’ – a move that angered many in the pro-democracy and union movements, even though he has continually stressed his determination to push for a multiparty democracy.

While his critics say it will not be possible for Sithole to make any real impact because he is going to be part of a rubberstamp parliament, he is adamant that he will be able to make a difference – and that his decision not to boycott the polls will be vindicated.

We can but wait and see. But if change doesn’t come in the next few years, it will be very interesting to see whether Sithole will stick to his guns – and remain focussed on being an agent for change – or whether he will start to act as more of a ‘development officer’ for his constituency, like the rest of the MPs.

After all, if he wants to be re-elected in 2018, he will have to deliver some services to keep his electors happy. After all, to paraphrase the famous saying, you can’t eat multiparty democracy!

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