Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Although parliamentary elections in September were peaceful and saw significant turnover among members (at least 46 of the 55 elected members are new, with 6 former ministers losing seats), the polls were neither free nor fair, according to international observers. In one positive development, long-time prodemocracy advocate and trade unionist Jan Sithole—now leader of the Swaziland Democratic Party (SWADEPA) political association—was elected.
Before the elections, King Mswati III had raised hopes of reform by announcing that Swaziland’s political system would now be called “monarchical democracy,” under which the people would provide advice to the king before he made decisions. However, he later clarified to the international press that it was no more than a name change.
The country remains mired in a deep financial crisis brought on by a sharp drop in revenue from a regional customs union, maladministration of public funds, and lavish spending by the royal family. The crisis has led to massive cuts in public services, including pensions, education, and health care since 2010. Swaziland has the world’s highest rate of HIV infection: 26 percent of Swazis between 15 and 49 are living with the disease. The financial crisis has led to shortages in antiretroviral drugs, as well as in HIV testing.
Political Rights: 1 / 40 [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 0 / 12
King Mswati III is an absolute monarch. The 2005 constitution removed the king’s ability to rule by decree, but reaffirmed his ultimate authority over the cabinet, legislature, and judiciary. Members of the bicameral Parliament, all of whom serve five-year terms, cannot initiate legislation. Of the House of Assembly’s 65 members, 55 are elected by popular vote within the tinkhundla system, in which local chiefs vet all candidates; the king appoints the other 10 members. The king also appoints 20 members of the 30-seat Senate, with the remainder selected by the House of Assembly. Traditional chiefs govern designated localities and typically report directly to the king.
Parliament passed a series of election reform bills in the weeks leading up to the 2013 elections. Some provisions were considered to be restrictive or politically motivated. An important development was the establishment of the Elections and Boundaries Commission, although its creation after the start of the election process limited its impact in 2013.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 1 / 16
According to the constitution, election to public office is based on individual merit rather than political parties. This, in effect, makes political parties illegal. Instead, political associations have organized, the two largest being the banned People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) and the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC). Both PUDEMO and the NNLC boycotted the 2013 elections. The political associations SWADEPA and Sive Siyinqaba participated.
In June, police searched the offices of certain members of Parliament who had led a motion of no confidence against the government in October 2012. Authorities said the search was to gather information on alleged embezzlement charges.
C. Functioning of Government: 0 / 12
Corruption is a major problem, and government corruption was widely blamed for contributing to Swaziland’s financial crisis. Corruption and nepotism are frequent in areas such as contracts, government appointments, and school admissions. In 2012, legislators voted to revoke their own 10 percent pay cuts. There is no oversight of the king’s budget. Swaziland was ranked 82 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Civil Liberties: 19 / 60 (-1)
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 8 / 16
Constitutional rights to free expression are severely restricted in practice and can be suspended by the king. Publishing criticism of the ruling family is banned. Self-censorship is widespread, as journalists are routinely threatened and attacked by the authorities and are subject to very high libel penalties. However, South African media are available, and both the private, royal-owned Swazi Observer and the independent Times of Swaziland occasionally criticize the government. In March, two senior editors at the Swazi Observer were reinstated after an eight-month suspension for reporting too negatively on the king. In April, an editor and the publishers of the independent monthly the Nation were found guilty of contempt of court and ordered to pay a 200,000-emalangeni ($20,000) fine or serve two years in jail for articles from 2009 and 2010 that criticized Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi; the ruling is still being appealed. The government reportedly has monitored internet communication. About a quarter of the population had access to the internet in 2013.
Freedom of religion is not explicitly protected under the constitution, but is mostly respected in practice, although security forces have been accused of intimidating church leaders deemed sympathetic to the prodemocracy movement. Academic freedom is limited by prohibitions against criticizing the monarchy, as well as restrictions on political gatherings.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 2 / 12 (-1)
The government restricts freedoms of assembly and association, and permission to hold political gatherings is frequently denied. Demonstrators routinely face violence and arrests by police. The government has sweeping powers under the 2008 Suppression of Terrorism Act to declare any organization a “terrorist group,” a practice that has been abused by authorities. In 2012, the government secured an Industrial Court order prohibiting antigovernment marches, and PUDEMO leader Mario Masuku was placed under house arrest to prevent him from attending a rally in support of striking teachers. Police harassment and surveillance of civil society organizations has increased in recent years, as have forced searches of homes and offices, torture in interrogations, and the use of roadblocks to prevent demonstrations.
Swaziland has active labor unions, some of whom have called for democratic reforms. Workers in most areas of the economy, with the exception of essential services such as police and health care, can join unions; however, government pressure and crackdowns on strikes have limited union operations. After approving the registration of the new Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA)—a merger between the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, the Swaziland Federation of Labour, and the Swaziland National Association of Teachers—in January 2012, the government deregistered it the following April, days after the new union voiced support for an election boycott. The union has continued to function without official government recognition, but faces harassment. On May 1, 2013, police raided its offices and placed five members under house arrest, disrupting May Day celebrations.
F. Rule of Law: 5 / 16
The dual judicial system includes courts based on Roman-Dutch law and traditional courts using customary law. The judiciary is independent in most civil cases, though the king has ultimate judicial powers, and the royal family and government often refuse to respect rulings with which they disagree. However, the Swazi High Court has made a number of notable antigovernment rulings in recent years. In 2011, Judge Thomas Masuku—head of the Judicial Services Commission—was suspended for allegedly insulting the king in a ruling. In 2013, Lawyers for Human Rights Swaziland filed a complaint with the Gambia-based African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights calling for his reinstatement.
Incidents of police torture, beatings, and suspicious deaths in custody continued in 2013. Security forces generally operate with impunity. Prisons are overcrowded, and inmates are subject to rape, beatings, and torture.
Discrimination against whites and people of mixed race is common, including difficulty in obtaining official documents. People with albinism are at risk of murder for ritual purposes. Discrimination against members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community is widespread, and many people hide their sexual orientation.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 4 / 16
The constitution grants women equal rights and legal status as adults, but these rights remain restricted in practice. While both the legal code and customary law provide some protection against gender-based violence, it is common and often tolerated with impunity. There are only four female members of the House of Assembly, down from nine in 2008. The Commonwealth Observer Mission reported two cases of traditional authorities telling people not to vote for certain female candidates in 2013, one of whom wore pants and the other a widow. The former took her case to court and won.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year