Friday, September 13, 2013

Swaziland: Will Swaziland become a Bhutan or a Nepal? Let the debate begin

Source: ISS

Will Swaziland become a Bhutan or a Nepal? Let the debate begin

Is there enough wiggle room for democrats in Swaziland’s absolute monarchy to make it worthwhile for them to participate in the 20 September elections?

This is a question which has not really figured in the political debate about Swaziland in South Africa, even though the country quietly simmers away most of the time on the backburner of our national consciousness. Because as a country we pay so little attention to events in our little neighbor that we have generally just absorbed, largely by osmosis, the strident calls for a complete boycott of elections by exiled Swaziland political organisations like the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), the Swaziland Communist Party, backed by their allies in the South African left, such as Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

We owe it to Alex Vines, the head of the Africa programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs – aka Chatham House – in London, and some of his colleagues, for questioning that rather automatic assumption and therefore prompting a debate. Vines and fellow researchers Christopher Vandome and Markus Weimer have just published a report entitled Swaziland: Southern African’s Forgotten Crisis, which documents thoroughly the dire predicament of the country. It warns that that the country is on a path to disaster unless political reforms are introduced urgently to put control in the hands of people who can and will govern the country properly.

Swaziland already has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS (31%) in the world, driving life expectancy down to 48 years and 66% of its people live below the poverty line. Meanwhile the personal fortune of the country’s absolute monarch, King Mswati III, has been estimated at around US$200 million (about R2 billion).

Poverty is increasing and the country is becoming increasingly dependent on shared revenue from the Southern African Customs Union (SACU). The country almost went bankrupt in 2011 after the global economic crisis. The South African government offered a R2,4 billion lifeline but this was conditional on Mswati’s government opening some democratic space and spending less on the sprawling royal household – including a growing and infinite number of queens – and on the ever-expanding public service, whose wages consume more than 14% of GDP. But then Swaziland got an unexpectedly high windfall payout from SACU in 2012 and this enabled the government to turn down South Africa’s loan, for now.

Yet the Chatham House report warns that this reprieve was only temporary, and that a crash remains inevitable unless the country undertakes real democratic and economic reform.

Swaziland holds parliamentary elections on 20 September which many opposition parties are boycotting because they say it’s a fraud. Which it certainly is, on the face of it. Political parties are not banned outright in Swaziland, but they may not participate in elections and so politicians have to stand for parliament as individuals.But Vines believes there may nonetheless be some space for democrats to explore and so boycotting the election may not be the right way to go.

The report notes that there are now at least 16 political parties in Swaziland, with the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC), PUDEMO, the Swaziland Democratic Party (SWADEPA) and the Sive Siyinqaba Sibahle Sinje being the most visible. All the active parties have manifestos outlining their policy positions but cannot register and therefore cannot compete openly in the elections. ‘But individuals from these parties can campaign and a number have successfully got their supporters through the primaries. SWADEPA supporters such as Jan Sithole could well win and become an MP’, the report adds. Sithole was once a unionist leader fighting the Mswati government through boycotts and street action.

Vines adds that ‘It’s difficult to predict the full number of individuals linked to political parties as some are completely covert – but do believe
in reform and are aiming to push for change through election’. He believes that Mswati might be feeling the pressure for change as he increasingly realizes that the economy is on a downward path and so might therefore include some of the reformists in his government after the elections.

This, along with increased external pressure, could just start to bring about change, Vines suggests, noting that the EU is opening an embassy in Swaziland and that this is a positive sign of reviving foreign interest in the country. And South Africa, one should add, ought to keep dangling that R2,4 billion – without in any way cutting the political strings attached.

The report offers an intriguing example of reform which Swaziland could follow: Bhutan, and a nearby one which it should not, Nepal. Both these countries in the Himalayas are, like Swaziland, small, landlocked and largely dependent on big neighbours (India in the case of Bhutan and Nepal).

In 2005 Bhutan’s absolute monarch, King Jigme Singye Wanchuk, launched a process of reform from absolute to constitutional monarchy, by accepting a draft constitution and transferring administrative power to a council of ministers. In March 2008 elections were held under a constitutional monarchy and the pro-monarchy Harmony Party won a landslide victory in what became a two-party democratically elected parliament.

Meanwhile in Nepal the absolute monarch King Birendra and nine members of the royal family were murdered in 2001. His brother Prince Gyanendra inherited the throne but refused to concede power. He faced a Maoist revolution and became increasingly autocratic.

Eventually, amid growing strikes and protests, he was forced to re-instate parliament which eventually abolished the monarchy in March 2008.

There is an obvious lesson for Mswati in this parable of the two Nepalese kingdoms: that the only way to preserve the monarchy may well be to cede political power. What is less obvious is whether there is also a lesson for Mswati’s political opponents.

Predictably the exiled Swazi ‘Left’ has condemned Vines for ‘soft-selling the sham elections’ and trying to defend Mswati from democratic change. Clearly that is not what he is trying to do. But this is a universal debate; whether to try to change a rotten system from within or only to do so through external sanctions and other pressure and internal street protects – and eventually, one presumes, revolution.

We had that debate in South Africa and the jury is still out on whether, for instance, the Progressive Party under its various labels contributed to change by participating in a parliament which excluded the black majority. There is a plausible argument to be made that it did make some contribution to change (along with external pressure directed by the ANC, obviously) not least by helping to keep the ruling National Party relatively honest and relatively civilized until it eventually realized it could not maintain an unjust system forever and began to cede power. Without that realization, South Africa's transition would either not have happened or would have been disastrous.

The Bhutan precedent which the Chatham House report offers to Swaziland contains the same vital ingredient; that whatever the outside or inside pressure, the king must in the end see the light before constructive change can begin. Let the topic at least be debated.

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa