News this week that the Supreme Court in Swaziland () rejected a claim for political parties to be allowed to contest the national puts a focus on the undemocratic kingdom.
The court has yet to give the reason for its decision against the Swaziland Democratic Party (SWADEPA) but at the heart of the matter is a made in 1973 by King Sobhuza II. He tore up the constitution, banned political parties and took all power to himself. Swaziland has been ruled by an absolute monarch (presently King Mswati) ever since.
A lot of hot air is generated in Swaziland about political parties. To some people they are the Devil’s work and part of a dark plot to destroy Swaziland and the Swazi way of life.
This is even though every First World country and parliamentary democracy in the world has them and they would be of great benefit to Swaziland if they were allowed to operate properly.
There is nothing sinister about political parties. A political party is simply a collection of people who come together because they have roughly the same set of views and opinions.
But they don’t just meet for a ‘talking shop’; they aim to get political power. In a parliamentary democracy this is done by getting people to elect your party into government.
In a parliamentary democracy you can have as many political parties as you want. After an election, the leader of the political party that wins the majority of seats in parliament becomes prime minister and appoints the government. If no single party wins a majority, two or more parties in parliament would usually join together to form a coalition government.
Whether there is a majority or a coalition government, there would also be at least one party in parliament that was the ‘opposition’ to the government. This means that there is always an alternative government available to the one in power. If the people don’t like the one in power, they can vote it out at the next election and put another party in government.
And that’s why the ruling elite in Swaziland doesn’t want political parties – the people can throw out a government they don’t like and replace it.
A major benefit of political parties for Swaziland is that parties not only allow people to choose alternative governments, they allow people to discuss alternative policies. There are so many problems in Swaziland at present that a succession of unelected governments has been unable to solve, and because political parties don’t exist, no alternative policies have been brought forward.
Governments have clearly failed on poverty alleviation, corruption in every fabric of Swazi public life, jobs creation, attracting foreign investment into Swaziland, the HIV pandemic and so on.
Since political parties were banned by King Sobhuza II’s there has been no way for people to create and debate different policies or strategies for Swaziland: and then to choose the path that the kingdom ought to follow.
The present Swazi Government is led by Barnabas Dlamini, the Prime Minister who was elected by nobody, but instead was appointed in contravention of the 2005 Swaziland Constitution by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch.
Dlamini was not elected for the policies he would pursue while in office. He therefore has no mandate from the people to do anything. And because he has never set out his policies there is no way that people can collectively disagree with him.
Take the example of the present economic crisis in Swaziland that has been dragging on for more than 10 years. In October 2010, Dlamini took to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) a Fiscal Adjustment Roadmap (FAR) of financial measures to try to save the economy. But there had been no debate with the Swazi people about what the FAR should contain, nor were alternative policies put forward and debated before it was finalised.
All we got was Dlamini’s plan. And that plan fell at the first hurdle when the foreign investment market refused to buy Swaziland Government Bonds, which Dlamini needed so the government could pay public sector salaries.
With the FAR in shreds there is no alternative economic plan. If Swaziland had political parties that alternative would already be ready and with the consent of the people could be implemented.
Political parties also allow leaders to come through. People can develop their leadership skills within political parties and while part of the parliamentary ‘opposition’, prior to taking office in government. One great weakness of Swaziland politics at present is the very low calibre of most people in parliament. Many have minimal education and few obvious skills. If political parties existed they could attract people of high calibre who knew that they had the opportunity of contributing to the future of Swaziland. No present day member of the Swazi parliament or senate could honestly say that about themselves.
In the case of Swaziland where there is not democracy at present, we cannot have political parties without changes to the political system. To begin with all seats to the House of Assembly and the Senate must be open to election with none in the patronage of King Mswati, as now.
Second, the Swaziland Constitution must be respected. The constitution on paper only allows for all of the following, and if political parties are to operate properly we must have them: freedom of organisation; freedom of speech and assembly; provision of a fair and peaceful competition; everyone to be included in the electoral process; media access and fair reporting and transparent and accountable financing of political parties.
Monarchists and traditionalists in Swaziland are dishonest about political parties. They say they bring division and chaos, but that does not stop them accepting charity and aid from nations that are multi-party democracies.
As recently as this month (August 2018) the media in Swaziland praised India the Royal Science and Technology Park at Phocweni. During his visit to Swaziland in April 2018, Indian President Shri Ram Nath Kovind confirmed a number of loans running into tens of millions of US dollars his country would make available to Swaziland. He also made a donation of US1 million toward feeding starving children in Swaziland. King Mswati then threw the President a banquet.
What the Swazi people were not told was that India is known as the largest democracy in the world (because of the size of its population) and has a multi-party system.
Taiwan, which set up numerous businesses in Swaziland to exploit the kingdom’s special trading relationship with the United States, is a multi-party system.
South Africa, Swaziland’s neighbour and largest trading partner, is a multi-party democracy. Without the support of South Africa, Swaziland would not have an economy.
King Mswati gladly receives charity for his kingdom from the European Union, an economic bloc that consists entirely of multi-party democracies. The United States – another multi-party democracy – also provides aid and charity in abundance.
It is the economic and aid support from multi-party democracies that keeps Swaziland functioning. But traditionalists refuse to openly discuss why it is that all these multi-party democracies have such successful political systems that they can afford to be charitable to Swaziland, while Swaziland, where parties cannot contest elections, cannot support itself.
In the Swazi system the people elect only 59 of the members of the House of Assembly; the King appoints another 10. No members of the Senate are elected by the people. King Mswati choses the Prime Minister and Government members
There is nothing the people in Swaziland can do. It makes no difference who they vote for. Whoever they elect into parliament, the decision-making remains with the King and nothing will change. Freeing political parties so they can operate openly would be the first step on a long road for Swaziland.
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