Mass Swazi campaign to unban poliltical parties

Unprecedented CSO coalition launches new campaign

Richard Lee's picture

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Strategic communications for WWF

June 7th, 2013

Just days after the Swazi authorities announced that ‘elections’ would be held on September 19th, an unprecedented coalition of civil society organisations launched a campaign to restore multi-party democracy to Swaziland.

Coordinated by the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organizations (SCCCO) and the (SUDF), the campaign aims to secure the ‘unequivocal and unconditional unbanning, recognition, registration and operationalization of political parties in the country’.

Banned since 1973 when King Sobhuza II abolished the post-independence multi-party system and imposed an absolute monarchy, political parties are still unable to operate freely in Swaziland despite the constitutional rights to freedom of association and assembly – and the numerous international human rights instruments that Swaziland has signed up to.

Involving 39 organisations that represent more than 60,000 Swazis, the campaign aims to raise awareness about the critical role played by political parties in all functioning democracies (every other country in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) allows parties)  and mobilise people across the country to call for the restoration of multiparty democracy.

“The campaign seeks to ensure that the nation successfully charts a way forward towards the peaceful and genuine resolution of the 40-year old political impasse which has adversely affected all Swazis,” said a joint statement issued by the SCCCO and the SUDF. “This should be inclusive of the appropriate changes to the national constitution and electoral laws to enable political party participation in elections.”

Currently, Swaziland follows the unique Tinkhunla system of governance, which allows election to national office based solely on ‘individual merit’ – which normally means allegiance to King Mswati III.

Seemingly threatened by the notion of multi-party democracy, the government has “…demonised, criminalised and sanctioned participation in activities aimed at promoting democracy and political parties to such an extent that it has instilled fear amongst the populace as one of the mechanisms to discourage and disenfranchise the Swazi nation.”

The authorities have also ignored the desire of the Swazi people to see major changes to the current system of governance, including the conduct of democratic multi-party elections in 2013 – a view that was clearly expressed in the recommendations of the Sibaya, which is constitutionally recognised as the highest policy making body of the country.

Faced with the intransigence of the authorities, organisations from across Swaziland – including trade unions, faith-based organisations, and groups representing youth, media, women, people living with HIV/AIDS, LGBTI individuals and artists – realised that only a concerted and coordinated campaign would stand any chance of securing a more open and democratic dispensation, which is the only means of tackling Swaziland’s numerous crises.

“The lack of democracy in Swaziland has been to the detriment of the nation as manifested in the collapse of the Rule of Law and the principle of the Separation of Powers, which ensures good governance,” stated the joint communique. “This has exacerbated the situation of poverty, unemployment, corruption and deteriorating standards of living of the majority of Swazis.”

While the campaign only has a few months to secure political party participation in this year’s elections (or ‘selections’ as they are ironically known), it could be the start of real change in Swaziland.

Often in the past, the authorities have been able to prevent transformation by exploiting divisions within civil society. The international community has also been frustrated at times by the lack of unity – making it more difficult for foreign countries to intervene and really push for change that ‘all Swazis want’.

Recognising this, the organisations have come together to provide a “collective and unified effort so as to realise the common goal of a pluralistic new order.”

There is little doubt that the majority of Swazis do want political parties to be allowed to operate freely – so that they can enjoy the same rights as all other SADC citizens and finally have some say over the governance of their lives. There is also little doubt that this collective show of strength will put more pressure on the international community to help end Africa’s last absolute monarchy.

However, there is absolutely no doubt that the Swazi authorities will fight back – and will do everything to avoid opening up the democratic process. And in the short term, King Mswati and his government might win – holding undemocratic ‘elections’ in September. But in the long run, change will come, especially now that civil society is so united behind one clear and realistic goal.

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