Elections in Swaziland: are they worth the hype?
By Muzi Masuku
The Commonwealth statement (above) remains a haunting indictment of the Swazi electoral system when we are only a few months to our next election.
I myself have been forced to reflect on Swaziland's election in light of the topical elections that were held in Zimbabwe at the end of March. Again our elections are supposed to happen on the backdrop of the exciting election panning out in the United States of America.
Even though the South African election is more than a year away, it still blights our election to nil especially with the interesting Polokwane developments and the distinct possibility of a Jacob Zuma presidency.
My reflection on the Swazi election in light of the aforegoing has led to my concluding that the Swazi election is inconsequential. Others might think that that is a rather harsh assessment or categorisation. Those who argue that the Swazi election is the most democratic will argue that I am in fact downright mad for daring to say such about their election. I however feel greatly vindicated in my assessment by the Commonwealth expert team's assessment of the 2003 election.
Why do we have an election in the first place? My rudimentary belief is that elections are held so that whatever government is holding the reigns will obtain a renewal of that mandate.
This, therefore, means that if the electorate is no longer happy with the way that a particular government is panning out, they will vote it out of office and replace it with a government which they believe will best represent their interests.
The flipside to this argument would be that elections are a means through which the general electorate participates in the governance of their affairs. My argument has always been that elections in Swaziland do not give the electorate an opportunity to punish one government and replace it with another because the candidates will be faced with the same set of circumstances whether they are learned or not.
Elections in Swaziland do not allow a candidate to articulate the real issues for which they are seeking a mandate from the electorate. It becomes irrelevant and does not resonate well with the electorate for one to declare that they want to go to parliament to enact a law that will regulate one thing or the next as their campaign motto.
It, however, becomes relevant for the candidate to argue that if elected to parliament he will do certain tangible things for that community or constituency. Thereby slogans such as s/he will build a bridge, or a clinic and even a school become the rallying cry for the respective candidates. Often this is a big white lie as this person is not likely to master the appropriate personal resources to carry out such a project.
At the same time when saying this they would not have been privy to government's plans on the rollout of the respective capital projects and the time when government intends to have what project in what area. A friend of mine once said that elections in Swaziland make liars of honest men.
While following debates on the American election and the articulation by the various presidential candidates especially Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton of their health plans, economic recovery plans, social welfare and other issues and the debates that ensue about the inadequacy of one plan as opposed to the other I could not help think that what we have is really a joke. My thoughts have been vindicated by a newspaper interview that some parliamentarians had wherein they were extolling their successes. I am afraid to say that it was the least impressive yet most of them want a renewal of their tenure in parliament.
The calibre of persons that our parliament attracts leaves a lot to be desired as well. Given the profile of parliamentarians in the current and previous parliaments, one can aptly surmise that the bulk of them are either the headmaster of the school in the locality or the local businessman who runs the grocery shop in the area or whose bus plies the local route. It is an irrefutable fact that these classes of people are highly influential characters who command a lot of respect in the communities from which they come. Their modus operand! in the actual run-up to the election is quite predictable. They have the appropriate wherewithal to buy the local soccer team a soccer kit and even sponsor the local soccer tournament.
In the months preceding an election, they will also avail their van to ferry bodies of dead people from their homes to the mortuary and back home for burial. They will also attend every funeral that is taking place in their constituency going on to offer a bag of maize and a vanload of firewood.
They will also start giving lifts to every person that appears to be standing at a bus stop. They will also start giving food hampers to the elderly in their areas. Those who are well-connected will organise that Philani Maswati come to their area to hand out blankets and food while at the same time extolling the wisdom and hard work of the organiser who will ironically be the prospective candidate. Unfortunately these are the things that win votes for a prospective Swazi parliamentarian.
As to what these people do once elected is a totally different ball game. There are parliamentarians who are known not to utter a word during serious debates. The very manner of voting in parliament means that we cannot even know how they voted on any issue that is presented before them.
The fact that parliamentarians can in a chorus say 'Ay' or 'Nay' with the vote going to those that made the loudest noise between the two groups means that we can never know how a parliamentarian exercised their vote especially if they were non-committal during the actual debate.
The letter by the Commonwealth team raised serious issues which are topical even today. One of those relates to the very independence of parliament itself. Given that we have in our constitution a very nebulously worded section 108 which effectively allows the King to veto parliament by refusing to endorse his assent until the lapse of a specified period of time means that we are at the behest of the King in so far as law making is concerned.
The very fact that we have a section 134 which entitles the King to disband parliament before their tenure of office is up without even giving reasons for that disbursement means that we have a severely incapacitated parliament.
Anyone who doubted the amount of power that the King wields in parliament should have witnessed the reaction of parliament to the 10 or so amendments that the King brought in from the throne during the debate of the current constitution. All these found their way in their entirety to the final text.
You can't help feeling that the entire government machinery in this country is shaped or engineered in such a way that it should serve the King and then the remnants of whatever remains can serve the general populace.
This can be witnessed in the way that everybody including parliamentarians can literally be seen to be bending over backwards to accommodate his every whims and caprices.
The King himself has not been unwise to this fact. This has seen him pushing the perimeters ever so often. The latest being his recent appointments to the Elections and Boundaries Commission. Instead of using the most credible yardstick that the constitution has set of appointing people to the commission that would otherwise qualify to be judges, he has instead looked within the royal court and identified royal hangers-on and relatives that are now tasked with managing Swaziland's electoral process.
Everyone will agree that the yardstick for testing "integrity" is very nebulous. It is, however, useful if your intentions are to appoint Chief Gija to be chairman of the Elections and Boundaries Commission. In a way he has in his ‘wisdom’ deemed it wise to keep a close hold on the machinery that runs the electoral process itself lest it runs its own course. This comes at a time when already staff in the Attorney General's Chambers had allegedly prepared an amendment to the constitution which sought to lower the standards that the constitution demanded of a holder of this office.
This stranglehold on parliament happens at a time when there is a growing tendency to disburse funds from the Throne. Parliamentarians have always been at pains after every speech from the throne to outdo themselves in bestowing praises to the King for a wise and wonderful speech. One wonders when are they going to query or take up issue with any allocation that the King would have made.
It would be wrong of me, though, to paint a picture of total gloom when in fact there are sterling performers that emerge at any given point in time in parliament.
Mtfongwaneni Member of Parliament Mfomfo Nkambule could be a case in point. However, one glaring thing about the system that is employed in parliament is that that very beacon of hope could effectively be rendered useless by being made to look like s/he is insane and pursuing a vendetta against certain people. From then on every parliamentarian will try to maintain a big distance between themselves and the purportedly troublesome parliamentarian lest they be seen to be birds of the same feather.
When he was Speaker of the House of Assembly, Minister Sgayoyo Magongo visited the South African parliament and was impressed with their portfolio committee concept.
He then introduced that in Swaziland going to motivate for the election of a parliamentary whip in MP Obed Dlamini. This position lost sight of the fact that the portfolio committees are most effective if they are a combination of opposition and ruling party members often with the opposition party holding the chairpersonship of that committee. This structure is likely to go to town exposing the inadequacies of their foes.
Even the concept of whips, it is party specific with the African National Congress and the Democratic Party having their own parliamentary whips who maintain order and certain standards of behaviour and decorum within their own party- You cannot have a general whip whom you hope will reign in errant tendencies from every member of parliament whom they are not even obliged to respect.
But given all that I have said above should we just fold our arms and continue to be spectators of this process? This is a question that a growing portion of civil society has been asking of late.
This has generated what I deem to be a healthy debate. Should we all be bending over backwards to accommodate the whims of one person or the few that enjoy the benefits or should we take the bull by its horns and participate in this electoral process with the hope of eventually reclaiming parliament for the people? This question has obviously come about because civil society actors have been spectating while the economy is being mismanaged and plundered left right and centre.
This group has been making varied suggestions such as saying that why don't we identify those of us who are keen to partake in this election and sponsor their candidature.
The expectation is that those people are then going to be beholden to us in terms of pushing forth a civil society agenda. Others have warned that there have previously been others who have tried to fight the system from within and have found themselves co-opted by the very system they set out to fight and have become its strongest advocates.
Others have warned of the rather rigorous manner in which the authorities have sought to protect their structures, institution and powers in such a way that any onslaught from without is contained. This includes putting on the constitution the types of quotas such as the ridiculous three-quarters majority that is demanded by section 247 on the amendment of specially entrenched clauses as well as section 108 and section 134 of the constitution. Partly owing to space limitation and the fact that there is a bigger civil society debate that will reflect on this position I will not expand on this debate.
But is this constitution in consonance with the advice that Don McKinnon was given by the Commonwealth Team of Experts? His lieutenant Ade Adefuyi made sure that he delivered to Swaziland a constitution that is in total variance with the advice given. It did not move Swaziland one inch away from the ungradable elections that is for freeness and fairness that the team wrote about 5 years ago.
Anyway McKinnon has got his pseudo Doctorate from the University of Swaziland to show for delivering a substandard text to us. I trust that this piece, however, begins to stimulate that necessary debate that has started within civil society on this very important topic.
Muzi Masuku is a lawyer by profession and works as Country Coordinator of the Open Society for Southern Africa (OSISA). He writes in his personal capacity.
First published in Khulumani, the newsletter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, Swaziland chapter, issue 11 (January – March 2008).