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Elections-related instability in eSwatini and Zimbabwe high on SADC agenda

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Picture: Image Source: Instudio – What makes the elections in eSwatini in 2023 particularly significant is that these are the first major elections to take place in the country since the violent unrest began in 2021, writes the author.

By Katharine Bebington

On 29 September 2023, eSwatini held its elections, the second set of major elections in Southern Africa following the elections in Zimbabwe in August. Zimbabwe has often found itself on the agenda of the peace and security organs of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and within the international community over the last few decades. However, in the past few years, eSwatini has also emerged as a recurring concern on SADC’s security agenda. This has meant that major events, such as elections, take on even more significance, as they are perceived as potential flashpoints for unrest and political instability within the country.

The Zimbabwe elections were highly anticipated, with many observers fearing unrest and violence during the election period. Many aspects of the Zimbabwe elections were contentious, with opposition parties accusing the government of banning their campaign rallies in the run-up to the elections, and then the rejection by the main opposition, the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), of the election results. On election day, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) ran into issues, as insufficient ballot papers were distributed to voting stations in mainly urban areas. As many voting stations were unable to provide sufficient ballot papers, voting was extended into the following day, providing the ZEC with additional time to deliver ballot papers to voting stations.

The elections also drew the attention of the wider international community, and a number of inter-governmental organisations sent observer missions to the elections, such as the African Union (AU), European Union (EU) and the Commonwealth, in addition to SADC. Many observer missions voiced concerns about the election results, with SADC noting that “some aspects of the Harmonised Elections fell short of the requirements of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, the Electoral Act, and the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections (2021).”

These statements emboldened the leader of the CCC, Nelson Chamisa, to not only call for a re-run of the elections, but also for the assistance of SADC and the AU (who had previously voiced concerns over the conducting of the elections) in the holding of new elections. The CCC were also set to legally challenge the outcome of the elections, but failed to file any papers with the Constitutional Court. The CCC indicated that they believed any legal processes would prove futile, as they consider the judiciary to be ‘captured’, and thus not independent and impartial. They instead chose a tactic of trying to raise political and diplomatic pressure on re-elected president, Emmerson Mnangagwa to concede that the elections were not free and fair. This saw the CCC call for mass protests after the elections to demonstrate against the outcome. However, the opposition rejection of the elections and observer misgivings did not stop the inauguration of Mnangagwa for his second term in office, which took place at the beginning of September. Despite SADC’s observer report, many SADC countries accepted the outcome of the elections, and many presidents attended the presidential inauguration. The SADC report was presented by the former vice-president of Zambia, Nevers Mumba, who was appointed to lead the observer mission by the Chair of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation, the president of Zambia, Hakainde Hichilema. The report has led to diplomatic tensions between Zambia and Zimbabwe, as President Hichilema has stood by the report on the elections and did not attend the inauguration. Some within Zimbabwe in turn have accused Hichilema of breaching SADC protocols when he appointed Mumba.

The elections in Zimbabwe, for the most part, have overshadowed the elections in eSwatini. The political make-up of eSwatini does mean that elections in the country are less significant, as they do not determine the head of state, in the same way that elections in Zimbabwe do. Nonetheless, the elections remain a significant event in the political cycle of the Kingdom.

eSwatini has a unique electoral system, known as the Tinkhundla system that elects some members of both Houses of Parliament, while the remaining members are appointed by the King. eSwatini is divided into 4 regions, 59 Tinkhundla and 336 chiefdoms, with 664 voting stations in which voters can cast their ballots. Nominations for office take place in the chiefdoms, although at this stage people cannot canvass for votes, and those nominated are usually people who are well known in the community. After this, a primary election is held in the chiefdom in order to elect a candidate from those nominated to compete in the secondary elections. Candidates are allowed to campaign for votes in the secondary elections, where the members of parliament are elected. In the lower House, the House of Assembly, 59 members are elected via a direct result, while 10 members are selected directly by the King. It is from the House of Assembly that the king chooses the Prime Minister. In the upper House, the Senate, 10 members are indirectly elected by the House of Assembly and 20 are selected by the King.

What makes the elections in eSwatini in 2023 particularly significant is that these are the first major elections to take place in the country since the violent unrest began in 2021. Those involved in the unrest have been calling for political reforms in the country, with calls ranging from the abolition of the monarchy to reforms within the current system. It is these calls for democratic change that have made eSwatini become a fixture on SADC’s security agenda.

Political parties are banned in eSwatini, which means that individuals running for public office cannot have political affiliations. Consequently, the elections raise a critical question in respect to Eswatini’s political movements and would be political parties. Will they contest or boycott the elections? Should the political parties choose to contest the elections, it could potentially place the monarchy in a difficult situation if pro-democracy candidates secure a significant number of seats. Pro-democracy Members of Parliament (MPs) could also use their positions in parliament to push for political reforms. However, competing in the elections could also be interpreted as legitimising the current political system. These questions have divided the pro-democracy movement in eSwatini, as older parties, such as the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) prefer to boycott, while newer parties, such as the Swaziland Liberation Movement (Swalimo) advocate for participation.

These divisions amongst the pro-democracy movement has seen the results of the primary elections largely favouring pro-government candidates. This increases the possibility that the September elections are likely to produce a pro-government/pro-monarchy parliament that is unlikely to entertain debates about political reforms in eSwatini. The elections also favour the monarchy in that they have been able to expose a major division amongst the pro-democracy movement, which will only serve to weaken their position. The division on how to approach the elections calls into question the movement’s cohesion amongst the various parties and their ability to compromise.

eSwatini will hold their elections on 29 September, regardless of the positions of the various political parties. The SADC Electoral Observer Mission (SEOM) to eSwatini will be led by H.E. Enock P. Kavindele, the former vice-president of Zambia. The SEOM was launched on 22 September, and will monitor the pre-election, election and post-election activities in the Kingdom. The SEOM is set to release its preliminary statement on the outcome of the elections on 1 October.

While it remains to be seen if the outcomes of the elections in eSwatini will be as contentious as those in Zimbabwe, both countries have opposition parties that have major misgivings about the current status of democracy in their country. The Zimbabwean opposition neither trusts the election results, nor has confidence in the impartiality of the justice system to contest those results. In eSwatini, the political system’s nature and the monarchy’s authority within that system, means that the opposition view it as undemocratic. This leaves Southern Africa vulnerable to political unrest and it leaves SADC with difficult questions to answer around the nature of the democracies that it wants and has in its region.

*Katharine Bebington is a researcher at ACCORD.

This article was first published in the ACCORD.