Voters lined up Friday to cast their ballot in Africa’s last absolute monarchy Swaziland to elect lawmakers under a rewritten constitution which still bars political parties.
The run up to the poll saw wide protests, border blockades and calls for multi-party elections. Political parties in the tiny landlocked mountain kingdom engulfed by South Africa have been banned since 1973.
“All of our 342 station are open and we are anticipating a good turn out,” said Election and Boundaries Commission deputy chairman, Mzwandile Fakudze. The booths opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and were to close 11 hours later.
Candidates contesting seats in parliament can only stand as independents under the traditional Tinkhundla system.
This is the first time elections are being held under the amended constitution which came into force in 2006, allowing for freedom of association but still maintaining the ban on political parties.
Foreign observers have also been allowed to monitor the elections for the first time.
Many voters queued up at the polling stations before they opened.
About 300 mostly elderly Swazis — bedecked in bright traditional attire –were lined up outside a booth in the capital Mbabane’s Zulwini station waiting patiently.
“We have more than six observer missions from different organisations. The vote will be free and fair. We are confident that the process will go on without any disturbances,” Fakudze told AFP.
Armed police fanned out across the kingdom monitoring schools and other public buildings being used as polling stations.
The candidates are vying for 55 seats in the national assembly. King Mswati III then nominates 10 others to the house which picks 10 representatives for the Senate.
The king selects 20 others to the upper chamber.
Mswati, who rules the country with his mother, also appoints a prime minister and other top government officials.
“Only less than 50,000 of the 400,000 elegible voters have not registered. Our two-month registration campaign and voter awareness attracted a large number of young voters,” said poll commission deputy head Fakudze.
Banned political parties and civil society groups have been fighting for multi-party elections and the abolition of the monarchy.
The run up to the polls were marred by angry protests and blockades of the country’s borders by trade unions and political parties.
The king, who keeps a tight grip over the impoverished landlocked country of one million, has been flayed by critics for his free-spending lifestyle and his penchant for fast cars, luxurious palaces and extravagant parties.
Nomusa Nhleko, 32, said she had never voted before but only registered this time around to get a voter card as it was an essential document to access other things such as jobs.
“I have been told that when you do not have a voter card it is impossible to access things like scholarships and government jobs for you or your kids,” she said.
The elections take place two weeks the government and the monarch came under fire for staging a 12.2-million-dollar bash to celebrate 40 years of independence from Britain as well as the king’s birthday.
Mswati’s country is one of Africa’s poorest, with one of the world’s highest HIV rates, and some have blamed the king’s state-sponsored, extravagant lifestyle for draining Swaziland’s finances.