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Election of the Day: Eswatini

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Voters in the Southern African State of Eswatini (known until 2018 as Swaziland; the name change was ostensibly to prevent confusion with Switzerland, which I refuse to believe was a serious problem), will elect a new legislative assembly on Friday. Eswatini’s legislature is bicameral; a parliament is elected via 59 single member district, first past the post elections, with the final 10 members being appointed by the King. Eswatini’s upper house, the Senate, is selected via appointment; 10 senators will be chosen by the new Parliament and 20 are appointed by the King. The 2005 constitution emphasizes that voters are to select members of parliament on their “individual merit” alone, which in practice means no candidate affiliated with any organized political group, including political parties, is eligible for office. (The 2005 constitution does mention protection for freedom of association, which could theoretically open the door for political parties, but in practice these elections are not party affairs.) The results of the last two elections have never been released to the public; the winners were simply announced.

There is no particular reason to believe the outcome of this election will be in any sense consequential. King Mswati III has served as Eswatini’s absolute monarch since his ascendence to the throne in April 1986, a week after his 18th birthday. While parliament can nominally pass legislation, the King’s veto power is absolute, and his decrees carry the force of law. The Prime Minister and other cabinet ministers are selected and appointed by the King, not the legislative body. Mswati appears to be something of a pathetically thin-skinned creature, more interested in the luxuries his status affords him than attending to his country’s many problems. After his penchant for purchasing luxury cars on the public dime met with some public criticism, he issued a royal decree criminalizing taking photographs of any of his cars. One of his wives (reports of his total number of wives vary but it appears to be around 15) was kidnapped by his agents from her high school, leaving her family in dark about her status for some time before it was announced she was being held in one of his palaces in preparation for marriage. His human rights record is predictably atrocious, with the LGBT community and anti-child labor activists standing out for particular persecution and abuse. A handful of members of the political opposition were elected to the legislature in 2018; two of them are in jail and a third is in exile.

Eswatini has seen a good deal of pro-democracy protests and political actions in the last two years, and it seems plausible this sham of an election could trigger another round of such. However futile those protests might seem, they’d stand a better chance of being a meaningful consequence of this election than any particular electoral outcome could be.

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