eSwatini goes to the polls

Mbabane - The African kingdom of eSwatini, formerly known as Swaziland, has gone to the polls that critics describe as a sham but supporters say are a unique blend of tradition and politics.

More than 500,000 registered voters will elect 55 parliamentarians to the House of Assembly on Friday. Political parties, however, are banned from the election.

King Mswati III, eSwatini's powerful monarch, will appoint the remaining 10 to make up the lower house of 65 representatives. The elected MPs will then choose 10 senators for the upper house, while the king will select 20 more.

With a wide range of powers allowing the king to summon and dissolve parliament or declare a state of emergency, eSwatini - home to around 1.4 million people - is ranked among the world's last remaining absolute monarchies.

"The candidates came together to our village to market themselves," a voter, Zodwa Mabuza, told the AFP news agency on Friday as she lined up to vote with her husband and daughter in the western constituency of Lobamba Lomdzala.

"We know the person we are voting for. The issues are job opportunities, proper roads and more food packages for the elderly."

Another voter who declined to be named said, "The parliament can talk all they want, but at the end of the day there is only one boss."

The authorities say that the absence of political parties puts local constituencies at the heart of the vote, and fosters a close link between citizens and elected representatives.

"To the critics, it is important to say that there is no 'one size fits all' democracy or system of government," Pholile Dlamini, deputy chair of the Elections and Boundaries Commission, told AFP.

"This system is a perfect fit because eSwatini is a modern-day country that has chosen to preserve its very rich cultures and traditions."

Voting stations opened in schools and community halls across the largely rural country, with results expected over the weekend.

The Southern African Development Community bloc and African Union have deployed observer missions.

But the EU and Commonwealth have not sent teams after issuing reports that criticised democratic deficits in 2013's polls.

The election, meanwhile, has been labelled a "farce" by Bheki Makhubu, editor of The Nation monthly magazine, who spent 15 months in jail from 2014 to 2015 for contempt of court after exposing misconduct among judges.

"The king is the executive authority of all things, based on the presumption he is the wisest of us all. It is rule by 'divine knowledge', not by facts," said Makhubu.

"Swazi people either try to win royal attention to seek reward, or they keep their heads down - but the economy is very depressed and the government is non-functional."

Political parties were banned outright by the king's father in 1973, and still face severe restrictions despite a 2005 constitution that, in theory, guarantees their rights.

Underlying tensions in eSwatini surfaced this week as thousands of protesters joined two days of trade union marches calling for public sector wage increases.

The demonstrations, which centred on the second city Manzini and were broken up by riot police using tear gas and water cannon, left several people injured.

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