JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — It was a stormy night in Swaziland, a few weeks before general elections, and King Mswati III awoke with a thundering vision for his country’s political future.
Swaziland would henceforth be known as a “monarchical democracy,” the king decreed via a spokesman, defining his vision as “the marriage between the monarch and the ballot box.”
This is, in effect, a simple rebranding of the current system. In Swaziland, political parties are banned and candidates chosen by local chiefs beholden to the monarchy. The country remains under a state of emergency, same as it has since 1973 when King Mswati’s father was the ruler.
As Swazi voters head to the polls on Friday, there is little chance of change in this tiny, mountain kingdom, one of the poorest in Africa and once again teetering on economic collapse.
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Swaziland’s would-be main opposition party, the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo), has said it is boycotting the elections since there is nothing democratic about them.
“The more things change, the more things stay the same in Swaziland,” said Zakhele Mabuza, the group’s spokesman. “Whether it’s called ‘monarchical democracy’ or what, it remains repressive and brutal to the people.”
Swaziland is Africa’s last absolute monarchy, a landlocked country sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique. It has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world, and two-thirds of its 1.4 million people live on less than $1 a day.
Chris Vandome, a researcher with the think tank Chatham House, described the economic trajectory of Swaziland as “unsustainable.”
“The king needs to embrace reform, rather than ignoring and risk seeing his kingdom impoverish and decline,” Vandome wrote in a commentary.
A damning report released this week by the US-based group Freedom House describes the country as a little-known place “where the government has popularized photos of beautiful girls performing traditional dances for the king.”
“These images both attract tourists and distract outsiders from Swaziland’s shocking realities of oppression, abject poverty, hunger and disease,” the report says.
Among the rights abuses documented in Swaziland are torture and beatings of pro-democracy activists, arbitrary arrests and restrictions on freedoms of speech and movement.
“In actuality, Swaziland is a country in crisis where even the traditional culture risks extinction due to the absolute monarch’s malfeasance,” the report says.
There was a wave of unrest in 2011, as Swaziland’s government faced a severe financial crisis and stopped paying for some health and education expenses.
While King Mswati blamed the global economic crisis, the major cause was in fact a cut in revenues from the regional customs union, which provides as much as 75 percent of the state’s income, according to Chatham House.
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The polygamous king has regardless of Swaziland’s troubles maintained a lavish lifestyle, providing for 14 wives, an estimated 24 children and 13 palaces.
King Mswati, who is 45, recently selected his 15th wife. He chose an 18-year-old beauty pageant contestant during an annual Reed Dance, a traditional event where bare-breasted maidens dance in his honor.
According to a report from South African media, 100 members of an elections monitoring team from regional bloc the Southern African Development Community (SADC) also attended the Reed Dance.
“The election observers jostled to get their pictures taken with the king,” the report said.
Pudemo, the Swazi opposition group, has called for international observers to boycott the elections since it won’t be free as long as political parties are banned in the country.
“We are very disappointed with SADC observers,” Mabuza said.
“We are trying to say to our people and to the international community that what they call elections in our country aren’t elections, but a ritual that takes place every five years,” he said.
“They are trying to tell everyone that Swaziland is democratic when we know that is not the case.”