There has been a rise in tensions in Eswatini as an estimated 585,000 registered voters went to the polls today to choose 59 members of the lower house of parliament. The parliament, however, only plays an advisory role for King Mswati III, the last remaining absolute monarchy in Africa. The tensions arise because the country’s extremely wealthy king holds absolute power and bans political parties, and elected representatives can only advise a monarch whose family has reigned supreme for 55 years.
King Mswati, 55, ascended to the throne at the age of 18 after the death of his father, King Sobhuza II, and has ruled the country for 37 years.
A few political groups held gatherings during the two-week campaign period for individual candidates, as political parties are banned under the law.
“We don’t have the right to be free, there is no freedom of expression. And if you speak this truth, you end up in exile or in prison”, Nomalungelo Simelane, known as LaZwide told AFP before speaking in front of supporters on Wednesday. She first entered politics through her pro-democracy husband, who the monarchy forced into exile in 2022.
Those who are vocal in their support for the opposition and pro-democracy also run the risk of jail time. Recently, two MPs, Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube, were found guilty of “terrorism and murder” and sentenced to up to 20 years in prison in connection with anti-regime protests that occurred back in 2021.
Dozens of people were killed by security forces, and demonstrations were banned.
Although rare, protests have continued. Earlier this year, human rights lawyer and government critic Thulani Maseko was shot dead in his home. Hours before his murder, the king had warned activists not to “shed tears” about “mercenaries killing them”.
Many human rights and activist groups have called the elections a “sham”. Including one Student Union leader who had this to say,
“They are saying that there are elections that are free and fair; there is nothing like that. The world must know that in Swaziland we are living under an absolute monarch. The three arms of government are under one man, not even a certain one. King Mswati III is the one that decides what is going to happen.”
With most candidates loyal to the king, it is unlikely that the results of Friday’s election will drastically change the political landscape of the country.
King Mswati can veto any legislation as he is constitutionally above the law. He also appoints the prime minister and the cabinet, can dissolve both parliament and the government, and commands the police and the army.