Saturday, May 26, 2018



As registration for the forthcoming election in Swaziland entered its second week, more than 100,000 had reportedly signed up.

Martin Dlamini, the Managing Editor of the Times of Swaziland, and one of the chief cheerleaders for King Mswati III, the kingdom’s absolute monarch, called the turnout ‘impressive’. In his column in the newspaper on Friday (25 May 2018) he said it showed there were ‘potential voters eager to elect new Members of Parliament’.

But he (and we) have no way of knowing if these figures are impressive or not. That is because we do not know how many people in the undemocratic kingdom are entitled to vote.

At the start of registration for the last election in 2013 the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) announced 600,000 people were eligible to vote (but observers questioned at the time this was an under-estimate of the true figure.) At the election in 2008, the EBC gave the figure as 400,000.
This time around no figure has been given. It is not even clear what Swaziland’s total population is. 

In November 2017, the Swaziland Government announced it was 1,093,238 people, according to the 2017 census. Of these, 562,127 were females and 531,111, males. It did not give a clear breakdown according to age, but said 35.6 per cent of the population were of ‘working age’. That would amount to 389,192 people, a far cry from the 600,000 eligible to vote last time.

The accuracy of the total population count is in doubt. For years, outside organisations had been estimating the size of the population in Swaziland and recording it as much higher than 1.1 million. The CIA Factbook gave the figure in July 2017 as an estimated 1,467,152 (373,914 higher than the government figure). 

The CIA figures breakdown the ages. Unfortunately, it does not state how many are aged 18 and over (the eligible voting age), but it shows the number of people aged 25 and over as 628,935. It also shows 324,495 people aged between 15 and 24. We cannot be certain how many from this group are aged 18 or over, but an educated guess would be that when added to those aged 25 and over the number of  people eligible to vote is comfortably between 700,000 and 800,000.

Which of the two estimates of the population is more accurate? We cannot say for certain, but it is on public record that there were many problems collecting information for the 2017 census. In April 2018, long after the census was completed and results announced, the Swazi Observer reported that enumerators (the people who did the counting) were still owed E1.3 million (US$104,000) in payments. That suggests the census was not run very efficiently.

It matters that we have an accurate figure for the number of people eligible to vote. Elections in Swaziland are recognised outside the kingdom to be undemocratic. Political parties cannot take part and people vote under a system of ‘Monarchical Democracy’ that underpins the King’s place as an absolute monarch. The King and his supporters say that the people of Swaziland like it that way and there is no need for change.

But that has never been tested. Media are censored and freedom of assembly is limited, so there has never been an a opportunity to debate whether people are truly happy with the political system. The turnout at elections is used by the King’s supporters as a way of measuring this. That is why it is in the interest of the King to spread the message that they are well supported. 

Martin Dlamini, who doubles up as a newspaper editor and an official paid praise singer for King Mswati, says the 100,000 who have signed up to vote so far is ‘impressive’. But, really it is not if there are more than 700,000 people able to vote.

At the last election in 2013 the EBC said there were 600,000 people eligible to vote. Assuming (although it was disputed as being too low) this was an accurate figure, in 2013 414,704 people registered to vote. At the final (secondary) election, 251,278 actually voted. That was only 41.8 percent of those supposedly entitled to vote and hardly a ringing endorsement for the validity of the election.

Richard Rooney

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