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Eswatini readies for vote seen as contest between monarchy and opposition

Supporters of eSwatini opposition candidate for the September 29, 2023 legislative elections Nomalungelo Simelane, gather for a rally in Siphofafeni, on September 27, 2023   -  
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MARCO LONGARI/AFP or licensors


The king doesn't take kindly to dissent, but she's not one to shy away from it. Nomalungelo Simelane, also known as LaZwide, an opponent and candidate in Friday's parliamentary elections in Eswatini, raises her fist for democracy at campaign rallies, a rare occurrence in Africa's last absolute monarchy.

In this small, hilly country, landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique, King Mswati III appoints the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and the judges, and the acts of Parliament only have the force of law if they have his seal of approval.

The election campaign was limited to two weeks. There were few posters on the streets, no long evening debates on television and virtually no rallies in a country where political parties have been banned for 50 years.

Candidates for the 59 parliamentary seats up for election on Friday are running without party labels and are for the most part loyal to the King.

"We don't have the right to be free, there is no freedom of expression. And if you speak this truth, you end up in exile or in prison", LaZwide told AFP, before speaking in front of a few hundred supporters on Wednesday, in a muddy soccer stadium in Siphofaneni, a small town some 80 km from the capital Mbabane.

Wearing heavy boots in the light rain and her face enhanced by a light shade of lipstick, the 44-year-old former gospel singer entered politics in a way by marriage: elected for the first time as a deputy in by-elections in 2022, she took the seat of her pro-democrat husband, pursued by the regime and forced into exile.

"I'm not a politician," she admits modestly. "But I know how to make myself heard around here".

"I was afraid"

Afraid of repression? Of being arrested? Two opposition MPs elected in 2018 are now behind bars.

"Yes, I was afraid," she says, recounting how she fled abroad two years ago, with her husband and their five children, to escape the wave of repression that followed anti-regime protests violently quelled by the police and army, leaving some forty people dead.

But with a mixture of religious faith in a predominantly Christian country and the intimate conviction that she had to take over from her husband, she returned home, alone.

"We believe in her," breathes Bandile Khoza, 25, before drinking in the words of the candidate mounted on a makeshift stage made of a few wooden planks. Like almost half the young people of his generation, he can't find a job and dreams of a better life.

 "There is no freedom in Swaziland (Eswatini's former name), there is no democracy", he angrily blurts out, without daring to say too much about a capricious king, often criticized for leading a lavish lifestyle among 1.2 million subjects, nearly a third of whom live below the poverty line.

In Eswatini, an inappropriate word can lead to prison, and the press is forbidden to relay any criticism of the monarch.

"We're graduates but unemployed. Our hope is to find a job and see our town develop," testifies 28-year-old Thandiwe Mtsetfwa, before setting off again to dance to the sound of the loudspeakers that have invaded the stadium under a heavy sky.

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