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Swaziland’s final round of parliamentary elections occur today at an important juncture. The country’s economic trajectory is unsustainable and after the election dust has settled, King Mswati III will need to consider reform options to lower the crippling public sector wage bill and improve the business environment.

Swaziland’s King Mswati III’s vision of ‘monarchical democracy’ that he announced in August, raised hopes of reform in the kingdom. The King gave a rare international press interview last week to clarify the term as ‘everybody can understand monarchal democracy. It’s an English name. This monarchal democracy is a marriage between the traditional monarchy and the ballot box, all working together under the monarchy.’

On the face of it, nothing has changed: ‘monarchical democracy’ or now, ‘monarchal democracy’, appears to be a rebranding of the country’s traditional Tinkhundla system. The timing of the regal vision followed consultation with some of his advisers and is recognition that Swaziland’s elections are significant as increasing numbers of Swazi’s want reform. Only individuals are allowed to stand in the election (political parties are barred), the Commonwealth Secretariat has sent an observation team led by former Malawian President Bakili Maluzi and the Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum has also deployed observers.

Economic downturn
The main sources of revenue – cash transfers from the Southern African Customs Union and sugar exports – are both expected to rescind over the next three years, and the void will not be filled by the weak private sector. The country struggles with human capital formulation: it has the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world at 39% and an estimated unemployment rate of 40%.

Yet despite the expected revenue deficiencies the government’s spending is forecast to increase to 45% of GDP by 2018. Swaziland has one of the highest public sector wage bills on the continent (relative to its size), and the royal household is notorious for their conspicuous consumption.

The effects of economic decline will become increasing felt by the King and the royal family who continue to use the national treasury as a private bank account. The challenge for reformers is to strengthen the links between the quasi-democratic legislative process and the monarchic executive. A more accountable public policy process must be created, and the business environment improved.

Challenges to reform
Swaziland is a deeply conservative country, and there is widespread support for the King, a civil uprising is unlikely. Opposition groups are divided ideologically. The banned political party, PUDEMO, retains influence and has encouraged a boycott of the elections. But other parties are fielding candidates – although due to the ban on parties participating in elections their affiliations are not public. A number of known reformist candidates are through the preliminary round of voting for the new parliament.

Yet opposition groups have struggled to attract support outside of the urban centres. Internal pressures must be supported by international engagement, but reformers must be mindful of Swazi sensitivities and national pride. Although it is generally difficult for external actors to add value to a divided opposition, the elections and subsequent new government provide an opportunity.

International engagement will enhance internal reform
South Africa’s foreign and economic policy to its smaller neighbour remains complex and often contradictory. Swaziland is not a foreign policy priority for South Africa as it poses no regional economic or security threat, but it does have enormous economic power. If the Swazi government runs out of money as the country spending trajectory suggests, the conditional R2.4 billion loan offered by South Africa in 2012, and is still on the table, will provide leverage for structural reform in return.

The building of new US embassy in Mbabane, while not a strategic move, is at the very least a statement of intent for continued engagement. The upgrading of the European Union External Action Service (EEAS) office to full embassy with resident ambassador in October 2013 is significant. In Swaziland the sole European voice is this mission and this makes Swaziland ideal for the EU to pursue a values based engagement.

SADC and the Commonwealth will have an increasingly important role in pressing for change and their election monitoring reports could provide an opening for further discussion on the need to reform the electoral system. Is ‘monarchal democracy’ compatible with the Commonwealth, SADC or the Pan-African Parliament understanding of democracy?

The change process in Swaziland is likely to be slow and painful but external pressure on the King and the executive will help curtail the economic trajectory. The King will need to think long and hard on whom after the elections to appoint in his new government, especially the role of prime minister. By starting a debate through his vision over ‘monarchical democracy’ and facing increasingly tight finances to both run the country and maintain a lavish court system, reforms are inevitable. The King needs to embrace reform, rather than ignoring and risk seeing his Kingdom impoverish and decline.

Chris Vandome is a Research Assistant with the Africa Programme at Chatham House.

Follow Chris on Twitter.

This is the third in a series of Chatham House expert comment blog posts. Previous: Benoît Gomis (International Security) & Dr. Robin Niblett (Director).

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