19 September 2008
Voting begins in Swaziland parliamentary election
By Charles Matsebula
MBABANE (Reuters) - Voters in Swaziland, one of the world's last absolute monarchies, went to the polls on Friday in a parliamentary election overshadowed by demands for democratic reforms.
The election, the first to be held under a new constitution that slightly loosened restrictions on political activity in the landlocked African mountain kingdom, was preceded by protests and sporadic violence.
All of those running in the election must do so as independents because of a 35-year ban on political parties, a point of contention for some voters who want political parties to be legalised.
There were no reports of unrest when voting began at 0500 GMT. The polls are scheduled to close at 1600 GMT and results are expected Saturday.
"I can confirm that the voting has started and so far everything is running smoothly," said Mzwandile Fakudze, the deputy chairman of Swaziland's Election Boundaries Commission.
Police on Thursday detained several union leaders and prevented other labour activists from participating in a protest at the border with South Africa. Authorities said the protest would have led to anarchy ahead of the election.
An estimated 400,000 Swazis are eligible to vote in the election in which 55 seats are being contested. King Mswati III who rules the country of 1.1 million people with a free hand, will appoint an additional 10 deputies to the assembly.
The monarch also will choose the country's prime minister and cabinet.
Although Mswati remains popular among many of his subjects, there is rising discontent over his extravagant lifestyle, refusal to adopt democratic reforms and to tackle social problems, including one of Africa's worst AIDS epidemics.
Swaziland's economy grew by about 3.5 percent in 2007 but has been buffeted in recent months by higher prices for fuel and food and a slowdown in South Africa, its main trading partner.
There are fears that unemployment and poverty could rise as a result of the economic difficulties. Already the unemployment level is about 40 percent.
Frustrations boiled over into rare violent protests earlier this month when demonstrators stoned shops, looted a market and set off an explosion that damaged a bus.
Mswati, listed as the world's 15th richest monarch by Forbes magazine, is not seen loosening his grip soon.