17 September 2008
By Charles Matsebula
MBABANE (Reuters) - Growing discontent and demands for democratic reforms in one of the world's last absolute monarchies will be in focus when Swaziland holds a parliamentary election on Friday [19 September 2008].
With opposition parties effectively banned by royal decree since 1973, the poll is unlikely to change the tiny southern African country's political landscape.
While King Mswati III remains popular, he faces growing dissatisfaction from critics and unions who accuse him of living an extravagant lifestyle while ignoring the plight of his subjects.
Unemployment is 40 percent and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is among the world's highest.
An estimated 69 percent of Swazis live below the poverty line and are struggling with rising prices. The IMF has said the economy faces growing risks, including higher inflation.
Inflation is expected to rise to 12.9 percent in 2008 from 8 percent in 2007, said the IMF.
It forecast growth to dip under 3 percent this year from 3-1/2 percent in 2007, but urged Swazi authorities to tighten monetary policy to counter price pressures.
Frustrations boiled over into rare violent protests earlier this month. Demonstrators stoned shops, looted a market and set off an explosion which damaged a bus.
The king keeps tight control over the legislature, naming the country's prime minister and cabinet.
His government has called on labour unions to call off what are expected to be mass protests on Thursday.
Workers, backed by South Africa's powerful COSATU trade union federation, have threatened to block trade on the border between the two countries.
Swaziland Prime Minister Absalom Dlamini called for dialogue and said demonstrations would only cause anarchy.
"Those who will participate in the demonstrations must brace themselves to face the full might and extent of the law," he said in a statement.
Mswati, listed as the world's 15th richest monarch by Forbes magazine, is unlikely to loosen his grip.
But that does not seem to bother many Swazis, who watched Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe next door cede some of his powers to the opposition for the first time in his nearly three decade rule in a post election power-sharing deal.
"You are going to get demonstrations by protesters, but I have little doubt that if you took a referendum, you would find a huge majority of Swazis would support what they have," said veteran South African political analyst Allister Sparks.
While unions and political groups are more outspoken -- recently criticising government spending on Mswati's 40th birthday celebration -- they are unlikely to be able to address the frustrations of people like AIDS activist Hani Dlamini.
"As people living with HIV there is nothing to expect from this government as long as the system is still the same," said Dlamini, an AIDS activist.