June 2, 2003

Democratic gains in new constitution?

After a seven-year wait, Swazis were able to glimpse a draft of a new national constitution and found that while governing power remains firmly in the hands of the monarchy, the kingdom's ruling authorities have bowed to domestic and international pressure and acknowledged the existence of human rights.

"Delivering the draft constitution to the nation is just the first step of a much more important job of having a fully-fledged constitution," King Mswati III told more than 10,000 Swazis gathered for a traditional launch of the constitution at the weekend. The ceremony was held in the main cattle kraal of Ludzidzini royal village, 20 km east of the capital, Mbabane.

Seated on the ground, King Mswati received a bound copy of the document, tied in gold ribbon, from his brother who led the drafting team, Prince David Dlamini. The king urged Swazis to review the document when it is distributed this week in the kingdom's 55 parliamentary districts, called Tinkhundla. He said the constitution would always be a work in progress, and royal commissions would be sent out periodically to canvas Swazis on suggestions for constitutional amendments.

But some of the speakers suggested the document was a fait accompli, and while Swazis were free to submit suggestions to Prince David's drafting committee, the essence of the document would remain unchanged, with governance continuing as it has since the independence constitution was overturned by Mswati's father, King Sobhuza, in 1973. "The king will be the head of the executive, and will appoint the prime minister and cabinet, some senators and MPs, as well as all judges and chiefs, the latter [being] positions which will remain hereditary," summarised a statement from the drafting committee.

Swazis will have no say in appointments to a new office of royal advisors to the king. The powerful traditional post of Authorised Person, who assumes extraordinary powers in the king's absence and has not been in existence since the 1980s, has been revived in the constitution.

One foreign concept, a Bill of Rights guaranteeing freedom of expression, religion and assembly, is to be part of the constitution. However, the draft constitution stresses that there are no "absolute" human rights, contrary to the belief of human rights groups that such rights are fundamental and inalienable. "The wording is unclear - perhaps intentionally - but it appears that all so-called human rights are subordinate to the highest authority of the country, the monarchy," an Mbabane lawyer told IRIN. Equally unclear is the status of political opposition parties, which have been banned for 30 years. The constitution guarantees "freedom of assembly and association", but makes no specific mention of political parties. (IRIN)

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