Political parties cannot be involved, there are no campaign rallies and the king wields absolute power, choosing the prime minister and cabinet: a parliamentary election in eSwatini is a vote like no other.
Opposition activists in the tiny southern African country formerly known as Swaziland say Friday’s election is a mockery of democracy and reveals how its 1.3 million citizens have long lived under a repressive regime.
Around 540 000 eligible voters must choose from candidates who have no party affiliation and who are almost all loyal to King Mswati III, one of the world’s last absolute monarchs.
Winners from the 59 constituency ballots take seats in a parliament over which the king has complete control. He also appoints a further 10 directly.
“It is a total misnomer to even call them elections,” Alvit Dlamini, head of the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress, the oldest political party in eSwatini, told AFP.
“Elections are a competitive process between political parties. This is a non-election — an appointment system by the royalists. If you participate, you can’t advance your own political ideas.”
But King Mswati’s government is a fierce defender of the unique approach.
It says that constituencies are at the heart of Swazi life and provide a direct link between voters and those elected.
It describes the system as a “home-grown” reflection of traditional society.
The constitution enshrines “individual merit” as the basis for election, meaning that political parties — which were banned by the king’s father in 1973 — are deemed unnecessary.
A ‘monarchial democracy’
Parties are now allowed to exist under the 2005 constitution, but have suffered repeated security crackdowns as well as court defeats in their battle for legal recognition and to be allowed to take part in elections.
Such restrictions anger many young Swazis, including supporters of Pudemo, a party that was designated a terrorist organisation in 2008 under draconian new laws widely seen as targeting government critics.
“The election is fixed, and parliament has no power. It is all with the king,” Pudemo’s new leader Mlungisi Makhanya, 40, told AFP.
“We don’t have people running in the election. If a candidate wants to be quietly known as a Pudemo supporter, we say ‘no thanks—you can’t do anything even if you are elected’.”
Nearly 20 members of Pudemo remain on bail after being charged with terrorism offences between 2009 and 2014.
Among the charges the group face are allegations they chanted pro-reform slogans at a rally and wore party T-shirts.
King Mswati, who has 14 wives and more than 25 children, has shown few signs of reforming what he calls the country’s “monarchial democracy”.
On the throne since the age of 18, this year he celebrates both his 50th birthday and 50 years since his country’s independence from Britain.
Often dressed in traditional robes, the king retains widespread support in rural eSwatini despite his reputation for lavish spending on planes and palaces while 63 percent of his subjects live below the poverty line.
The country, landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique, suffers the highest HIV adult prevalence rate in the world at 27.2%.
The king demonstrated his untrammelled authority earlier this year when making a surprise announcement that Swaziland would officially change its name to eSwatini (“land of the Swazis”).
‘People are scared’
In addition to curbs on opposition parties, anti-government protests are also effectively banned.
Marches are planned this week by striking civil servants, teachers and nurses, but the government said it “expected” trade unions to halt the action.
In June, police used rubber bullets to break up a rare demonstration by 500 trade unionists protesting against alleged government theft from the national pension fund.
“People can’t express their views freely, they are scared,” Shireen Mukadam, a researcher at rights group Amnesty, told AFP.
“eSwatini is an extremely closed society. There is a pervasive culture of secrecy.
“People are used to submitting to the king. The constitution itself says that he has absolute power.”
Donor nations have had little success in lobbying for greater freedoms.
The European Union, which gave 20-million euros ($23-million) in aid in 2015, says it is “critical of the democratisation process”.
The Commonwealth sent observer missions for the last three elections, but has not sent a team this week, although the Southern African Development Community bloc and African Union will deploy monitors.
After the 2013 vote, the Commonwealth’s experts reported they “cannot conclude that the entire process was credible. (Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg)