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Swaziland received a downward trend arrow due to an increase in the autocratic powers of the king under the country's new constitution.
Public debate of Swaziland's controversial and long-delayed draft constitution concluded at a conference in September 2004 that was dominated by supporters of royal rule and largely ignored submissions by labor and human rights groups urging democratic reforms. In November, the parliament, a body with little independent authority, voted overwhelmingly to ratify the new constitution.
Swaziland's King Mswati III is the latest monarch of the Dlamini dynasty, under which the Swazi kingdom expanded and contracted in conflicts with neighboring groups. Britain declared the kingdom a protectorate to prevent Boer expansion in the 1880s and assumed administrative power in 1903. Swaziland regained its independence in 1968, and an elected parliament was added to the traditional kingship and chieftaincies. In 1973, Mswati's predecessor, Sobhuza II (who died in 1983) repealed the 1968 constitution, ended the multiparty system in favor of the tinkhundla (local council) system, and declared himself absolute monarch.
Voting in October 1998 legislative elections was marked by very low turnout and was neither open nor fair. It was based on the Swazi tinkhundla system of closely controlled nominations and voting that seeks to legitimatize the rule of King Mswati III and his Dlamini clan. Security forces arrested and briefly detained labor and other pro-democracy leaders before the elections and after a series of bomb blasts. The 55 elected members of the National Assembly were approved by the government and were joined by 10 royal appointees.
Parliamentary elections in October 2003 were preceded by calls by critics of royal rule to boycott the polls, which were not deemed credible by international observers. However, the number of women legislators increased to an impressive 30 percent, or a total of 16 of 55 seats.
The country's new constitution, a product of five years of work by the Constitutional Review Commission, was unveiled in May 2003. Drafted by two of King Mswati's brothers, the document maintains a ban on political opposition to royal rule and reaffirms the palace's absolute control over the cabinet, parliament, and the courts. Although it provides for limited freedom of speech, assembly, and association, as well as limited equality for women, King Mswati may waive these rights at his discretion. In September 2004, public debate of the constitution concluded at a conference dominated by supporters of royal rule; submissions by labor and human rights groups that pushed for democratic reforms were largely ignored. The king has set a November deadline for ratification of the new charter by the parliament, a body with little independent authority. A group called the National Constitutional Assembly - a coalition of trade unions, banned political parties, and other civil society groups - is seeking an order from the country's Supreme Court to block King Mswati from decreeing the new constitution into law. The document already has the approval of parliament.
Most Swazis remain engaged in subsistence agriculture. In addition, many families depend on income from men working in South African mines. The country has the world's highest rate of HIV infection, at 38.6 percent of all adults.
Citizens of Swaziland cannot change their government democratically. King Mswati III is an absolute monarch, and royal decrees carry the full force of law. Of the 65 members of the National Assembly, 55 are elected by popular vote and 10 are appointed by the king. The king also appoints 20 members of the Senate, with the remaining 10 selected by the National Assembly. Members of both houses serve five-year terms. Political parties are banned by the constitution, although there are political associations, the two largest being the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) and the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC).
Swaziland was not surveyed in the 2004 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. A private firm hired by the finance ministry estimates that the government is losing more than $6.5 million per month to corrupt practices. An Anti-Corruption Unit was established in 1998 but has failed to produce a single indictment.
Freedom of expression is severely restricted, especially regarding political issues or matters concerning the royal family. Legislation bans publication of any criticism of the monarchy, and self-censorship is widespread. However, broadcast and print media from South Africa are received in the country. There is one independent radio station, which broadcasts religious programming. In 2003, the new information minister, Abednego Ntshangase, announced that the state media would not be permitted to cover anything that has a "negative bearing" on the government. The ban affects the country's only television station and news-carrying radio channels. The government does not restrict access to the Internet.
Freedom of religion is respected, although there are no formal constitutional provisions protecting the practice. Academic freedom is limited by self-censorship.
The government restricts freedom of assembly and association. Political parties are banned, and pro-democracy protests are sometimes violently broken up by police using tear gas and rubber bullets. The trade union movement remains a target of police and government repression. The Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), the country's largest labor organization, has been a leader in demands for democratization, but not successfully, given the absolute rule of the monarch. Jan Sithole, the SFTU general secretary, has been jailed several times in recent years and he and his family have received death threats. In 2001, Sithole and five other union leaders were charged with contempt of court and brought to trial for organizing a strike that had been banned by the authorities; the case was eventually dismissed. Workers in all elements of the economy, including the public sector, can join unions, and 80 percent of the private workforce is unionized. Wage agreements are often reached by collective bargaining.
The judiciary, which is based on Western and traditional law, is generally independent in most civil cases, although the royal family and the government often refuse to respect rulings with which they disagree. Swaziland's judicial system became mired in crisis in November 2002, when six South African judges on the court of appeals resigned after the prime minister said that the government would ignore court judgments that curbed the king's power. The appeals court was reconstituted in November 2004, following assurances that the government would adhere to its decisions.
There are regular reports of police brutality, including torture, beatings, and suspicious deaths of suspects in custody. Security forces generally operate with impunity and have used heavy-handed tactics to break up pro-democracy rallies. Prisoners complain of beatings and overcrowding, and of neglect of inmates suffering from HIV and AIDS.
The legal code provides some protection against sexual harassment, but Swazi women encounter discrimination in both formal and customary law. Employment regulations requiring equal pay for equal work are obeyed unevenly. Married women are considered minors, requiring spousal permission to enter into almost any form of economic activity, and they are allowed only limited inheritance rights. Only men can pass on Swazi citizenship to their children. Violence against women is common despite traditional strictures against it, and rape frequently goes unpunished.