Mbabane, Eswatini – Clutching a loudspeaker, a young man standing atop a pick-up truck repeatedly shouts “Votela! Votela!” as rush-hour pedestrians and shoppers walk past behind him, seemingly uninterested.
He is urging them to cast their vote in favour of his candidate standing for parliament in this week’s poll in the mountainous southern African kingdom of Eswatini.
On September 21, more than 500,000 registered voters in the country formerly known as Swaziland will elect 55 parliamentarians to the House of Assembly.
King Mswati III, Eswatini’s powerful monarch, will appoint the remaining 10 to make up the lower house of 65 representatives.
The elected MPs will then choose 10 senators for the upper house, while the king will select 20 more.
With a wide range of powers allowing the king to summon and dissolve parliament or declare a state of emergency, Eswatini, home to some 1.4 million people, is ranked among the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies.
A sombre battle for the ballot
Unlike many other countries, where the run-up to voting day is typically characterised by vibrant campaign rallies, catchy news headlines and posters of candidates lining the streets, in Eswatini the atmosphere seems much more subdued.
Friday’s vote comes against a backdrop of growing concerns among activists over the fairness of the monarchy’s electoral system, which bans parties and large rallies and forces aspiring MPs to run as independents.
Around the country’s constituencies, there is a scattering of posters of each candidate in their locale. Campaigning is done via loudspeaker patrols and community gatherings held in designated public areas with the approval of the local traditional chief who is appointed by the king.
For some candidates and their campaign teams, the restrictive rules on public gatherings have made it difficult to canvass supporters.
“We are allowed to do our own individual campaign, but we can’t gather people to have rallies where we can say our manifesto,” said Bonisiwe Dlamini, a campaign manager for Sarafina Makha, who is running for the post of headwoman in Soweto, a semi-rural constituency on the edge of Manzini, Eswatini’s second city.
“We can only talk to small groups of people in our constituency so it takes a long time to get the message out,” added Dlamini.
Jan Sithole, an opposition leader of the banned Swaziland Democratic Party (Swadepa) who was elected as an independent in 2013, said the limited two-week campaign period and the lack of access to state media for candidates without ministerial posts disadvantaged both new contenders and the electorate.
“People are shooting in the dark when they are electing a person … This is a big problem,” the former trade unionist told Al Jazeera in Manzini.
“Unless you are known publicly to stand for certain values, [then] it’s easier for people.”
‘No role for democracy activists’
In 2013, in the lead-up to that year’s parliamentary polls, the king declared Eswatini a “monarchical democracy”. Percy Simelane, government spokesperson, defended at the time the electoral system, saying it was rooted in Swazi culture.
“Swaziland’s democracy is founded on the country’s values and way of life,” he said.
More recently, he told to the local Swazi Observer publication in April: “The way the nation goes to parliamentary elections in this country is constitutional, as attested to by the last party of international elections observers only five years ago”.
However, a recently-released survey by Afroquest, a local agency that works in partnership with poll analyst Afrobarometer, suggested that citizens have a different view.
According to a report in local newspaper The Times of Swaziland, 34 percent of all Swazis believe that there is no democracy, while 17 percent say democracy exists but it is fraught with problems.
However, according to a report this year by US-based democracy NGO Freedom House, the former Swaziland is not considered a free and democratic country, scoring an aggregate of 16 on a 1-100 scale ranking (“not free” to “free”).
Some critics say restrictions such as limited public gatherings, the ban on the participation of political parties and the monarch’s appointment of a prime minister make the election an undemocratic process designed to entrench King Mswati III’s power.
Pro-democracy activist Wandile Dludlu serves as secretary-general of the country’s largest opposition movement, the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) – which is classified as a “terrorist” organisation.
He told Al Jazeera the party would not field an independent candidate running in their personal capacity until there was an overhaul of the entire system.
“There can be no role we, as democracy activists, can play in these elections,” said Dludlu, who was charged with treason in 2009 but his trial is still pending.
“We remain with the bigger struggle of first and foremost democratising the country, which will help to level the political playing field to enable us to conduct elections towards [creating] a parliament that will have the power – unlike what we have now,” added Dludlu.
Although former Swaziland adopted a more progressive constitution in 2006, the 1973 decree passed by King Sobhuza II – the father of the current monarch – restricting political organisations remains in force.
Under the Suppression of Terrorism Act (2008), which was introduced following a series of petrol bombs targeting politicians in the 2000s, the PUDEMO is a prohibited movement after its members were accused of being responsible for the attacks.
‘A ticking time bomb’
Thulani Maseko, a prominent human rights lawyer who in 2015 was jailed for more than a year for criticising the king, argued the targeting of democracy groups is a deliberate strategy to enable the monarchy to maintain its political and financial interests.
To this end, Maseko said, the upcoming elections are intended to benefit the king, not the people.
“In this country, we don’t contest political power because power is vested in the monarch,” he told Al Jazeera in the capital, Mbabane.
“These elections are just a window-dressing exercise to make people feel as though they elect a parliament, but that parliament can’t even defend the interests of the people, it defends the king.”
Maseko has lodged a case in the kingdom’s Constitutional Court, arguing the decision by King Mswati III in April to change the mountain kingdom’s name – a move announced during celebrations for the monarch’s 50th birthday – was illegal.
The lawyer argues that the constitution prevents the king from imposing his own will and requires him to consult publicly with the people or table the matter in parliament.
“We are sitting on a ticking time bomb in this country because the more monarchy has its hand everywhere, the more people will resist,” said Maseko.
And like many other democracy activists, both Dludlu and Sithole, in their different ways, maintain that change is possible and inevitable.
“There is nothing as permanent as change,” said Sithole. “You can slow it down but it always keeps coming.”