Swazis vote in an election bound to keep king on top

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 20, 2013 11:15 AM

By Jon Herskovitz

NKHABA, Swaziland (Reuters) - For most Swazis, polling day serves only as a galling reminder of the entrenched poverty, inequality and suppression of human rights in a country run as King Mswati III's personal fiefdom.

Voters chose on Friday from a slate of royal supporters in an election virtually devoid of campaign posters and completely lacking in political parties, which are banned so as not to upset the workings of Africa's last absolute monarchy.

The event is so risk-free that the 45-year-old Mswati plans to leave for the U.N. General Assembly in New York even before the votes are counted in the landlocked southern African nation.

"Voting feels like knowingly feeding your children poison," said Mario Masuku, leader of the People's United Democratic Movement, a banned opposition group. "The results are neither here nor there - an ineffective parliament will soon be born, and the winner will be the system."

In Nkhaba, 50 km (30 miles) northwest of the capital, Mbabane, hundreds waited in line to vote on a sun-baked field surrounded by vendors roasting chicken on makeshift barbecues.

"The king is more important than all politicians. I am voting for someone I hope can assist the king in ruling," said Dennis Mashaba, an unemployed 22-year-old construction worker.

Although well-managed and with computer print-out voter rolls corresponding to the photo ID cards carried by all Swazis, the election remains a thinly disguised charade for many.

"In our country, we don't do politics," said George, a retired civil servant who did not give his family name, mindful of the trouble that comes to people who criticize the king.

"Democratic voices have no opportunity to question the powers that be. I would support a democracy with the king but there should be democracy first," he said.

OUTCASTS

Swaziland goes mostly unnoticed by the outside world and, for many who have heard of it, it is an outpost of traditional Africa where the British-educated Mswati has endeared himself to some of his people as a guardian of custom and culture.

But just below that surface is a country 70 percent of whose 1.4 million population lives on less than $1 a day and 40 percent of mothers have HIV/AIDS - the world's highest rate.

Meanwhile, Mswati, in power since 1986, has a fortune estimated in 2009 by Forbes magazine at $200 million and has just announced his 15th wife, an 18-year-old beauty pageant contestant he chose at a mass dance of bare-breasted virgins.

There are a handful of political prisoners but the greatest fear of those who defy Mswati is being cast out of society.

"We really can't say anything bad about the king because we don't want to get in trouble," a student at the University of Swaziland said. If her name were used, her career would come to an abrupt end even before it started, she said.

Mswati is adamant his "Tinkhundla" political system, meaning "constituencies" in the national Seswati language, is a bottom-up democratic process.

"It's working well here," he told Reuters last week. "Everything that we do in this country is by consensus."

The reality is very different.

Parliamentary candidates are pre-selected by loyal district chiefs, the king appoints two-thirds of the Senate, hand-picks the prime minister and then can - and does - reject laws he does not like.

He holds most of Swaziland's land in trust, parceling it out to chiefs to ensure absolute loyalty to his office.

"Mswati's reign has been characterized by shameless greed for money and profound insensitivity to the sufferings of his subjects," a report by political research group Freedom House said. "He has paid scant heed to the tradition that a king is a king by and for his people."

He is also advised by the Swazi National Council, described in a 2010 U.S. diplomatic cable as a group of traditionalists, spiritual healers and charlatans.

"Few have experience with international travel, some are illiterate and most are anti-democratic in our definition of the word," the cable, released by Wikileaks, read.

Such a body is ill-suited to turn around a stagnant and investment-starved $4 billion economy or reform one of Africa's most bloated bureaucracies.

"This is a disgrace to democracy," a man called Dube told Reuters at a Nkhaba polling station. "Our resources go to a small clique who benefit from the system. In Swaziland, we don't have peace, but we are quiet."

(Editing by Ed Cropley and Louise Ireland)

(This story was refiled to add dropped word in the first paragraph)