February 8, 2006

New constitution unclear on political parties

Swaziland's long-awaited new constitution has come into effect, but analysts and political parties said it remained vague on the key issue of legalising political parties. "The constitution seems deliberately ambiguous on the issue - it could be read as an attempt to undermine any move to allow democracy to take root in the absolute monarchy," said Thabele Matlosa, director of research at the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa.

In his order bringing the new constitution into effect King Mswati did not mention the suspension of the 1973 decree promulgated by his father, King Sobhuza, which banned organised political opposition groups. The Swazi press made the assumption that the decree had been suspended, on the basis of comments made by the top traditional leader, Jim Gama, the governor of Ludzidzini Royal Village.

Officials of Swaziland's banned political organisations have already expressed reservations over the implied arrival of political reform. "The constitution is in force, but it is not democratic or derived from the people. It is important that the king made no mention of the 1973 decree," said Mario Masuku, president of the banned People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO).

A bill of rights in the new constitution guarantees Swazis freedom of assembly and speech, but the king can suspend these rights if he finds them in conflict with the public interest, which is not defined in the document. "The constitution essentially protects the monarchy and does not allow room for other actors to define Swaziland's democratic future," Matlosa commented.

Meanwhile, one of 16 political activists on trial for attempted murder and high treason pleaded guilty to involvement in an arson attack on a government building. "I unlawfully engaged in conduct with the intent to overthrow the kingdom and/or coerce the kingdom by violence into certain actions," declared Mduduzi Dlamini, 30, in a statement. He received a reduced one-year prison sentence and a R5,000 (about US $805) fine.

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