Swazi Media Commentary
Swaziland holds it breath as it eagerly awaits King Mswati III’s declaration of the date for the kingdom’s national election.
Already dates have been set for people to register so that they are eligible to vote in the elections, widely expected to be in October or November 2008.
Yesterday (7 May 2008) the Swazi Observer published a special elections supplement, which among other things gave good solid information on who qualifies to be a voter and what a person has to do to register.
Some of the ‘qualifications’ look a bit strange to me. The Observer states that a person is only qualified to vote if she/he has been associated with Inkhundla for at least five years. That seems to mean that if you have moved home in the past five years you don’t get a vote. Or does it mean you have to move back to a place where you have lived for at least five years? It’s a bit confusing and seems to me that it will restrict the number of people who are entitled to vote, which is a pity because we need all the voters to participate that we can get if these elections are to be considered to be valid.
There is a lot of controversy in the Swazi media at the moment over these elections. Yesterday (7 May 2008) the Times of Swaziland went so far as to declare there was ‘an election crisis’. In an editorial comment the Times says the government is acting illegally in the way it announced the dates for voter registration. The Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) announced the dates before a parliamentary bill was tabled that in effect gave the EBC the authority to do so. Two parliamentary bills intended to facilitate the smooth running of the election have now been withdrawn by the Swaziland Justice Minister.
There is already controversy over the way members of the EBC were selected (the inappropriate qualifications of the members has prompted many in the media to declare the ECB ‘illegal’).
The Times editorial states,
‘That the two bills have been withdrawn, while the EBC continues to educate people how to vote, only goes to prove how casual the authorities are about a very serious matter that has drastic implications for this country.
‘We subscribe to the view that while the constitution allows the existence of an EBC, it (the EBC) cannot operate without a law guiding its day to day operation.
‘If we had a parliament we did not regret, it would have moved to have the operations of the EBC suspended until Parliament had passed the law that governs its operations.’
The Observer supplement gave space to one organisation that doesn’t get much coverage in the Swazi media - the Peoples United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO).
PUDEMO is often incorrectly called in the international media the Swaziland ‘opposition party’. This isn’t true because in Swaziland all political parties are banned and there is no ‘official’ opposition in the way that democratically run countries would have a government and then have political parties that ‘opposed’ it.
Although PUDEMO is illegal in Swaziland that doesn’t stop it advocating for democracy in the kingdom.
It is because PUDEMO is illegal in Swaziland that some news media are reluctant to report its activities or comments. There is a feeling that to report on an illegal organisation might itself be illegal and therefore open up a media house to legal attack. Also, of course, in Swaziland just about the entire broadcast media are state controlled and they are not going to let PUDEMO make its case on the airwaves.
So, congratulations to the Observer for giving PUDEMO the chance to explain why it wants people to boycott the election and not cast their vote.
In an article, Mario Masuku, chairman of PUDEMO, writes that PUDEMO is ‘seeking for a constitutional multiparty democracy that is underpinned by the will of people,’ and ‘believes that unconditional respect for the fundamental people’s rights is core to any process of government, in particular that of adult suffrage.
‘National elections are a major component of the democratic process, but, however, they are not an end in themselves, and not all national elections are democratic, free and fair, and the forthcoming Swaziland ones are those one would describe as falling short of a popular democratic process.
‘The Commonwealth Expert Team that observed the Swaziland National Elections of 2003 had this to say on them: “We do not regard the credibility of these national elections as an issue; no elections can be credible when they are for a parliament which does not have power and when political parties are banned”.’
Masuku says that PUDEMO will boycott the election because the election will not give a mandate to ‘an accountable and credible government to serve the electorate’.
He adds, ‘Not only will we not take part, but will encourage people to hold on to their mandate until democratic elections are possible under a politically conducive environment.’
PUDEMO has also been getting coverage in the international media. On Tuesday (6 May 2008) the Voice of America (VoA) carried a report that PUDEMO ‘is accusing the government of King Mswati III of making a mockery of the tenets of democracy’ ahead of the election. VoA said PUDEMO ‘also reportedly described as illegal a decision by the electoral commission to open the voter’s register in preparation for the parliamentary elections’.
A report on the VoA website quotes Masuku saying that PUDEMO is determined to thwart the government’s efforts to deceive the ordinary citizen.
VoA quotes Masuku saying that although PUDEMO stands a chance of losing out by refusing to be part of the parliamentary election, it is ready to fight for a total regime change.
He said PUDEMO wanted people to realise that a minority would elect any government that is elected this year. It would be ‘a government that would have a parliament, or house of assembly that has no power at all when the power is vested in the King and his family. We would rather stand to our principle of respecting fundamental human rights, and that of democracy than be counted among compromises of the truth.’
The issue of whether to boycott the national election is hotting up in the Swazi media. Unsurprisingly, since all media in Swaziland have a stake in the status quo, all are urging people to partake in the election. But there is a sizeable part of the so-called ‘progressive movement’ in Swaziland that wants a boycott. We shall see whether the media allows people in the kingdom to fully debate the issue. If the Observer is anything to go by, things are looking good in this regard at the moment.
MORE BANS BY SWAZI ELECTION BOARD
First published 8 May 2008