ELECTIONS IN ESWATINI: WHY THE WORLD DOES NOT CARE?
We are halfway into the election and the world is least bothered. Typically, any country going to an election attracts world attention as the media conjures up ideas of what the old and new government brings to the people.
It is as if no one knows we are in the middle of an election. No rallies, no manifestos and only a handful of badly written posters of aspiring MP´s promising people this or that. It is safe to say ours is a special country and conducting a special election that no ones care about. What explains this? Why is there no media attention or electoral razzmatazz in the country?
Many of the developmental challenges facing our country have been highlighted in various research reports by credible bodies in Africa and the world. They all point to the structural deficits inherent in our electoral system.
The Tinkhundla elections has been termed an ‘organised certainty’ mainly because they reproduce the prevailing political status quo in the country. This system ensures that the ruling royal family enjoys an unchallenged monopoly over power and state resources. The political system therefore renders elections as mere arenas for competition over patronage and not policy.
For 45 years now, this country has not known anything other than Tinkhundla electoral system. There are entire generations born that do not know what is the role of government and how does parliament differ from the executive. Importantly we as a people have never voted for a government.
For over 45 years now government has been appointed on our behalf by the King. Elections long lost their meaning in this country. We must therefore educate our people patiently and consistently if we are to raise their consciousness about elections, government and citizen participation.
Elections are the only instrument of democratic and peaceful transfer of power that involves the consent and choice of the majority. Therefore, the right to vote and participate in an election is part of our basic human rights.
Human rights and democratic principles are valued world over as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.
This includes the “freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, the right to take part in the government of one's country through freely elected representatives, the right of equal access to public service in one's country, and the recognition that the authority of government derives from the will of the people, expressed in genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot” (International IDEA on Electoral Integrity).
Elections are important in any country not just because they make politicians accountable to the electorate but, bar the case of eSwatini, must provide a mechanism for a smooth power shift between different political parties.
Elections therefore must be conducted with integrity to strengthen democracy, further development, and for social and individual security.
Where elections are held and integrity is not challenged, the bedrock of the democratic principle of political equality is honoured and citizens select their leader and hold them accountable.
Where elections lack integrity the politicians, the leaders, officials and institutions are not accountable, the public is denied “equal opportunity to participate in and influence the political process. In such cases, the public loses interest in the election and faith in its outcome and the government formed would remain weak and away from the public. In that case, institutions would render empty shells deprived of ethos, principle and the spirit of democracy is dampened. Electoral integrity not only gives boost to social integration and upholds the rule of law, but regularly scheduled elections with universal and equal suffrage, and held in secret ballot, has tangible benefits. One of the benefits is that it empowers women, fights corruption, delivers service to the poor, improves governance and ends political or ethnic conflicts peacefully. Moreover, a peaceful transfer of power takes place, which is the essence of democracy (Sakhawat Hussain, 2017).
In the case of eSwatini, and with reference to the last elections alone, various observer missions made what is now routine yet startling findings about the integrity of our elections.
What is notable, however, is that almost all the observer missions spoke of the need to give expression to the constitutionally guaranteed right to assembly and expression by registering political parties and ensuring they participate in the process.
The Elections Experts Mission (EEM) report on Swaziland Primary and Secondary Elections dated 24 August – 20 September 2013 noted that "...Although the electoral legal framework contains the technical aspects required for the proper administration of elections, it does not conform to international principles for the conduct of democratic elections, as it does not respect one of the fundamental rights for participation –the freedom of association. In this context, the electoral process, and the overall democratization process, is impaired since its start...Freedom of association should be respected as provided in Swaziland’s international commitments by allowing the participation of political parties in the electoral processes as well as the adoption of national legislation for registration of political parties. The existence and participation in elections of political parties can take place, as in other First-Past-the-Post systems, without affecting the current Tinkhundla, or monarchial democracy, electoral system...”
This has been consistent with those who believe that lack of articipation of political parties in the elections renders the entire process useless.
This position was reinforced by the African Union Election Observer Mission (AUEOM) report dated September 20, 2013 which observed that “…despite the guarantee of fundamental rights in the Constitution, the rights of association and assembly contained in Article 14(1) (b) of the Kingdom of Swaziland Constitution and Articles 10 and 11 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the rights with regard to political assembly and association are not fully enjoyed. This was evidenced by the Mission’s observation that candidates contested elections as individuals and not under political parties. The Mission further notes that there seems to be a conflict between the Articles 14 (1) (b), 25 and 79 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Swaziland in regard to the rights to freedom of association....."
Continued the report: "Based on its observations and consultations, the Mission Urges the Kingdom to review the Article 79 of the Constitution to be in conformity with Articles 14 (1) (b) and 25 which enshrine the fundamental freedoms of conscience, expression, peaceful assembly, association and movement as well as international principles for free and fair elections and participation in electoral process and specifically the OAU/AU Durban Declaration on the Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa..."
The SADC Lawyers’ Association (SADC LA) Election Observation Mission was even more damning in their finding of the structural, administrative and political weaknesses of the Tinkhundla elections and processes.
It detailed many irregularities, administrative incompetency, judicial and legal conflicts plus the political hollowness of the process.
Having detailed its observation it then released a report following the last elections and observed that while the EBC did not have a mandate over the political system, it recommended to authorities to implement Section 25 of the Constitution as interpreted by regional and international instruments applicable to the Kingdom of Swaziland.
Reads the report in part: “Implementation of the growing views of sections of society, as guaranteed in section 25 of the Constitution, which called for the introduction of a multi-party system. SADC LA is not prescribing a multi-party system as the relevant system, but recommends that the will of the people be respected in this regard. Furthermore, the SADC LA recommends the speedy enactment of the implementing legislation, as a means of implementing Section 25 of the Swaziland Constitution..." (The Preliminary Statement of the SADC Lawyers’ Association Election Observation Mission to Swaziland dated 22nd September 2013).
The EISA Technical Assessment Team Report 2013 stated that while political parties are legal on paper they were not permitted by law to participate in elections and that this placed undemocratic limitations on people’s right to freely choose their representatives, in violation of Articles 25 and 84 of the Constitution.
“…Voters who believe that political parties have no place in the political life of Swaziland would be free to vote for independent candidates. This creates unnecessary social and political conflict and unrest and endangers the stability of the state and the well being of society. This has also led to successive Houses of Assembly that are dominated by parochial concerns rather than national ones. The Team recommends that political parties be permitted to participate in elections and that parties that foreswear violence be unbanned through a transparent and fair legal process with the possibility to appeal. Legislation governing aspects of political party life such as registration, regulation, funding and financial control should be enacted..., " (EISA Technical Assessment Team Report 2013).
The Commonwealth Observer Mission report dated 20 September 2013 also found that “the entire process could not be deemed credible, due to major democratic deficits. As one of 32 small states in the Commonwealth, with concomitant vulnerabilities, the achievement of Swaziland’s national development objectives was being constrained by a system where Parliament did not have power, due to prevailing inconsistencies and contradictions, in particular as they related to the separation of powers (or lack thereof) and the rule of law; and secondly, political parties were proscribed, due to contradictions as they related to the interpretation of the fundamental right of freedom of association and assembly..."
All these concerns about our election have fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps this explains why the world does not treat our elections as a legitimate process to change or renew a government´s term of office.