General elections scheduled for September-October this year have set the cat among the pigeons in Eswatini’s unsettled political landscape. Even though political parties are banned from participating directly participating in the government, 16 political parties are now active in the population of just over a million people.

Official policy is that political aspirants can only run in their communities and be elected on their individual merit. Political parties that want to the change to control government are deeply opposed to this, and for 30 years now, demanded the right to participate openly as a political formation. The Government doesn’t think so. A new constitution in 2006 entrenched the Tinkhundla system of government. It forbids political parties that were dismissed by the Kingdom’s former rule, King Sobhuza II as divisive. His successor, King Mswati III has retained that position, and over the year resisted political reforms.

PUDEMO, the most prominent among the older established parties traditionally boycotts the elections and tries to persuade its members to do the same. The effect is hard to measure.

Over the years, new startup parties have broken ranks with the boycott movement. The most visible was Jan Sithole, a former trade union leader who ran in the populous city of Manzini, and won in one of the two constituencies in the city. He lost the seat in 2018 to MacFord Nsibandze, the MP he had ousted.

The 2023 elections promise many surprises. Repressive measures to enforce COVID-19 prevention deeply upset the public. Searing public protests that rocked the Kingdom in June 2021, leaving an estimated more than 40 people dead have raised the ante. Members of Parliament who thought they could use their in-House of Parliament status to challenge the political order upset government and were arrested.

Political reforms in the Kingdom are arriving by some unusual routes. The bellringer of change appears to be Mduduzi Simelane, popularly known as Gawzela. Just before the eruption of the 2021 national protests, the colourful Member of Parliament who is also a gospel singer and evangelist threw caution to the wind and openly challenged the status quo by insisting on holding a public meeting to receive public petitions against the government at his Siphofaneni constituency in the Lubombo Lowveld. He skipped the country to avoid arrest, and is now resident in the UK.

Simelane has demonstrated that political parties exist and have some clout at polls. Him absent and now resident in the UK, he called on his supporters to replace him with his wife, also a gospel artist, LaZwide. Voters obliged. The measure has spurred his party ahead in the national recognition stakes; a benefit he is expected to lean on in the September-October poll. JM/Sena/3.4.23


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