18 September 2008
Swazi police arrest protesters ahead of election
OSHOEK, Swaziland (AP) - Police in Africa's last absolute monarchy are blocking protests on the eve of parliamentary elections, trade unionists and pro-democracy groups charged Thursday.
The elections are being criticized as a sham because political parties are banned from participating.
Vincent Ncongwane, secretary-general of the Swaziland United Solidarity Front, said police arrested four trade
unionists on their way to the South African border for a planned demonstration, and prevented others from others from reaching the demonstration. Some 200 people protested on the South African side.
Mario Masuku, leader of the banned People's United Democratic Movement, said he was stopped on the orders of Swazi authorities whilst trying to leave the capital, Mbabane.
There was no immediate comment from police.
Tension has mounted ahead of Friday's parliamentary elections for 55 seats in the House of Assembly. Political parties have been banned since 1973 when the late King Sobhuza II declared a state of emergency. Unaffiliated candidates are allowed to run. Even though the current King Mswati III has relaxed the state of emergency, the ban of parties remains in force and the monarch retains huge powers.
The South Africa-based Swaziland Solidarity Network, which organized the border protest, called for «South Africa and the world over to condemn these one-sided elections.
Southern African nations have sent some observers but the European Union has not.
Police used tear gas this month to break up demonstrations calling for political and economic reforms. There was particular anger at the cost of celebrations marking the 40th birthday of Mswati and his nation's 40th anniversary of independence from Britain.
The so-called 40-40 party officially cost US$2.5 million (¤1.72 million), but was widely believed to be at least five times more _ in a country where 70 percent live below the poverty line and which has the world's highest AIDS rate.
One in five Swazis now depend on international food aid, partly because AIDS has devastated rural areas and led to an explosion in child-headed households who can't tend the fields.
Life expectancy for the landlocked country of 1 million people has nearly halved since 1998 and is now less than 31 years, according to U.N. figures.
Mswati is widely revered, but there is anger about the luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by him and his 13 wives.
At his birthday celebrations Sept. 6, Mswati urged residents to overcome their apathy and vote for people who can tackle Swaziland's huge problems. Many previous government officials have been criticized for serving only their own personal interests.