October 17, 2003

Low turnout expected for parliamentary elections

Despite a boycott call by the Democratic Alliance to protest what it says will be a meaningless parliamentary election on Saturday, public apathy is likely to play a bigger role in the expected low voter turnout.

King Mswati's government was unconcerned in 1993 when only 13 percent of adults voted. However, an election boycott called by pro-democracy groups in 1998 was countered by a government effort to get people to the polls. Bad weather was used as an excuse to extend voting by two days. Good weather is expected for Saturday, which has been declared a public holiday to ensure better voter turnout.

Not all the nation's 55 constituencies selecting an MP will hold elections. Several lawsuits filed after the primary election must be resolved first, said High Court Justice Josiah Matsebula. Most lawsuits allege vote rigging and other forms of fraud. Violence between supporters of rival candidates has been reported in the press, but no arrests have been made.

Chief Electoral Officer Robert Thwala has urged candidates to sleep at police stations near polling places on election night as insurance against ballot box tampering. Besides, a five-member Commonwealth team of election observers is in the country.

Political parties are banned by royal decree, so all candidates are running as individuals without the benefit of party platforms. Most candidates are promising the voters roads and clinics for their areas if they are elected, although MPs lack the power to deliver on such pledges, since King Mswati uses parliament as an "advisory body", a status written into a new constitution. Besides the 55 elected MPs, Mswati will appoint 10 additional MPs to look after royal interests, making a total of 65.

Once in office, MPs swear an oath of allegiance to Mswati. No MP initiates legislation, but deliberates bills submitted by Mswati's hand-picked cabinet. The king can override parliamentary votes, or decree laws into existence without parliament's participation. The popular sentiment is that candidates seek to be MPs for personal gain.

Some known members of banned political parties are defying the boycott call of the Swaziland Democratic Alliance, and are contesting the election. The most notable is former prime minister Obed Dlamini, the leader of the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress. (IRIN)

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