Saturday, September 20, 2008

SWAZILAND: Africa's last absolute monarchy holds parliamentary polls

Foreign observers monitoring elections in Swaziland expressed concerns Friday over the exclusion of political parties in Africa's last absolute monarchy, as the banned opposition called it "window-dressing."

Voters lined up Friday to cast their ballot to elect lawmakers under a rewritten constitution which allows freedom of association but still bars political parties.

Candidates contesting seats in parliament can only stand as independents under a homegrown political system called Tinkhundla. Elections are held every five years after which King Mswati III appoints a new prime minister.

"The non participation of political parties makes these elections extraordinary from any others... but we hope with time things will change," the head of the Pan African Parliament mission, Mary Mugyenyi, told AFP.

Foreign observers have been allowed to monitor the elections for the first time, and the run-up to the poll saw wide protests, border blockades and calls for multi-party elections.

Mario Masuku, of the banned People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), condemned the election as "a window dressing exercise trying to pull wool over the eyes of the international community."

"We urge the international community to intensify the pressure on the Swazi government so that it embraces democratisation," he said.

Mzwandile Fakudze, the deputy chairman of the Election and Boundaries Commission, said he expected a good turnout for the election.

"We have more than six observer missions from different organisations. The vote will be free and fair. We are confident that the process will go on without any disturbances," Fakudze told AFP.

Armed police fanned out across the kingdom monitoring schools and other public buildings being used as polling stations.

The candidates are vying for 55 seats in the national assembly. Mswati then nominates 10 others to the house which picks 10 representatives for the Senate. The king selects 20 others to the upper chamber.

Mswati, who rules the southern African country with his mother, also appoints a prime minister and other top government officials.

The king, who keeps a tight grip over the impoverished landlocked country of one million, has been flayed by critics for his free-spending lifestyle and his penchant for fast cars, luxurious palaces and extravagant parties.

The elections take place two weeks after the government and the monarch came under fire for staging a 12.2-million-dollar bash to celebrate 40 years of independence from Britain as well as the king's birthday.

Mswati's country is one of Africa's poorest, with one of the world's highest HIV rates.

About 300 mostly elderly Swazis -- bedecked in bright traditional attire -- were lined up outside a booth in the capital Mbabane's Zulwini station waiting patiently.

Nomusa Nhleko, 32, said she had never voted before but only registered this time around to get a voter card as it was an essential document to access other things such as jobs.

"I have been told that when you do not have a voter card it is impossible to access things like scholarships and government jobs for you or your kids," she said.

Nomusa Dlamini, 22, who travelled five kilometres (three miles) to vote in Mbabane, also said she had been told that people without a voting card would not be given access to government jobs and overseas scholarships.

"I came because I was afraid someone was going to notice if I didn't go to the polling station. I did not even know the people I am going to be voting for. I will be seeing them for the first time on the ballot," Dlamini said.