Swazi elections: Entering the Game to Change the Game

Swazi elections: Entering the Game to Change the Game

By Simon Redder Thomsen, International consultant for the Social Democratic Party of Denmark

It is election year in Swaziland. This comes as no surprise for (the few) followers of Swazi politics. It has been four years since the last round, so it is time for the nation to raise its voice again. Just as in any other modern democracy Swaziland holds elections with regular intervals. There is just one slight difference. In Swaziland there is no uncertainty about who will be holding the reins of power after the election. The ultimate power still rests with the King.

However, something is different from the last many elections. After years of deadlock in the democracy movement some of the main protagonists behind formulating the boycotting strategy some 20 years ago, have founded a political party, Swazi Democratic Party, SWADEPA. SWADEPA has a clear ambition of participating in the elections in an attempt to break the standstill. It is not just any random opposition leader in the Swazi context who has founded SWADEPA. The party is led by Jan Sithole with a background of 25 years as leader of Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions. After formulating the now almost legendary “27 demands” in 1994 that put the nation to a halt with nationwide strikes and forced the government into a range of concessions, Jan Sithole may arguably be the most prominent person in the Swazi democracy movement. In forming the party, Sithole has brought with him a range of trade union leaders, church leaders and civil society leaders.

Training session - part of partnership between the the Social Democrats and SWADEPA
Training session – part of partnership between the the Social Democrats and SWADEPA

It is no easy task the founders of SWADEPA have taken upon them and many of their former comrades in the democracy movement are observing their attempt with great skepticism, mistrust or even contempt. The King’s grip on power appears to be solid, the election process where only individuals can contest is highly screwed in favor of the regime, strict limitations are put on campaigning and several seats are reserved for the King’s appointees.  The leaders of SWADEPA are well aware of this and they know that change will not arrive overnight. However, they are determined at securing some representation in the Parliament, through which they can form a progressive grouping that can be a platform adding to the pressure from the streets by advocating for democratic change from within.

Jan Sithole and his companions know that the attempt has tainted their reputation amongst some of the other actors in the democracy movement. But so far, they sense that they may be better in line with the rural majority in the population than the protagonists of the boycotting strategy by emphasizing their respect of the traditional, Swazi institutions while maintaining that these should be placed outside the realm of politics. While facing the supporters of the boycotting strategy on one side, they know it is a risky strategy where the regime on the other hand may start cracking down on SWADEPA, if their support continues to grow. But for persons with decades of democracy struggle behind them, including kidnappings, death threats and imprisonments, the leaders of SWADEPA know very well the stakes in the game. Nothing ventured, nothing gained appears to be SWADEPA’s reasoning. The objective of reaching multiparty democracy remains the same as it has been through a life of democratic struggle. Only the strategy has changed. And the leadership keeps reiterating what the alternative is? After 20 years of fruitless boycotting efforts, they have grown tired of waiting. SWADEPA is entering the game to change the game.

More Information

Read more about the partnership between the Social Democrats and SWADEPA. Please notice: the partnership is currently on hold as SWADEPA participates in the elections in Swaziland.