Fewer than 270,000 people voted at the Swaziland national election in 2013: only 44 percent of those entitled to do so.
The percentage turnout was lower than in the previous election in 2008.
The low turnout casts doubts on claims by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, that his subjects support what he calls his kingdom’s ‘unique democracy’.
Political parties are not allowed to take part in elections and most of the political groupings in Swaziland that advocate for democracy have been banned under the King’s Suppression of Terrorism Act.
The Swazi people are only allowed to select 55 of the 65 members of the House of Assembly, the other 10 are appointed by the King. None of the 30 members of the Swaziland Senate are elected by the people: the King appoints 20 members and the other 10 are appointed by the House of Assembly.
Neither the House of Assembly nor the Senate are independent of King, who can, and does, overrule decisions he does not like.
The people do not elect the government; the Prime Minister and Cabinet ministers are handpicked by the King.
Immediately before the national election in September 2013, King Mswati announced that the political system in Swaziland that had until then been called tinkhundla would in future be known as ‘Monarchical Democracy.’ He said this would be a partnership between himself and the people.
The supporters of King Mswati saw the election as a way for the Swazi people to endorse the King’s version of democracy. At the same time prodemocracy groups urged people to boycott the election.
The full results of the election have not been made public by King Mswati. This is not unusual in Swaziland where ordinary people are starved of information about the Royal Family and how the government is run.
Information about the turnout in September’s election slipped out in a report from the African Development Bank. In its Southern Africa Quarterly Review and Analysis for the fourth quarter of 2013, the Bank devotes a mere seven lines to the election but manages to reveal, ‘Swaziland held its parliamentary elections in September 2013 and the voter turnout was 65 percent.’
If that was the case it means that about 267,000 of the 411,000 people who registered to vote actually did so. It also means that only 44.5 percent of the 600,000 people Swaziland’s Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) said were entitled to vote did so.
This compares to the 47.4 percent of people entitled to vote in the previous election in 2008 who actually did so. At that election 189,559 people of the 400,000 entitled to vote did so.
The vote for the 2013 election contradicts King Mswati, who in a speech at the opening of parliament in February said, ‘We wish to thank the nation for going out in their numbers to elect a new government in a highly successful election.’
It also exposes the Weekend Observer newspaper, which is in effect owned by the King and is considered to be a propaganda operation for the monarchy. Immediately after the vote in September it reported the turnout of people on election day was ‘about 400,000’ which would have equated to a turnout by voters of about 97 percent.
It is impossible to tell whether the low turnout in the 2013 election was in support of the boycott call by prodemocracy advocates. It could easily have been because ordinary Swazi people saw no point in voting as it would change nothing in their lives.
The power wielded by King Mswati was criticised by two independent international groups which observed the Swazi election in 2013. Both the African Union and the Commonwealth Observer Mission suggested the kingdom’s constitution should be reviewed to allow political parties to contest elections.
The Commonwealth Observer Mission added that, ‘The presence of the monarch in the structure of everyday political life inevitably associates the institution of the monarchy with politics, a situation that runs counter to the development that the re-establishment of the Parliament and the devolution of executive authority into the hands of elected officials.’
Whatever the reason for the low turnout in the 2013 election, King Mswati and his supporters can no longer claim with justification that the Swazi people wholeheartedly support the political system in Swaziland.