Preparing for multi-party elections in Swaziland’s absolute monarchy

”You need to walk twenty metres behind me so the police doesn’t find out you are with me,” we are told by  the young Pudemo member who is taking us to a meeting in Manzini with some of Pudemo’s organisers.

Given the record of Swaziland’s police forces, who almost habitually detain or manhandle members of Pudemo, and on occasion foreigners who support the democratic movement, we do as he tells us.

Red-Green Alliance candidate for the municipal elections in November, Thomas Eisler, and I are on a project visit in Swaziland. And we have been impressed with what we have seen.

Yes, Pudemo have to some extent been struggling to make themselves heard due to media censorship and the fact that the government has banned them and regards them as terrorists, on the basis of a terrorism law that Amnesty International calls “an inherently flawed piece of legislation .”

And yes, Pudemo has historically been struggling to increase its membership due to the state clamping down on anyone associated with it and Pudemo members being denied scholarships or jobs, meaning that many people have been afraid to openly support the party.

But the tide seems to be turning. “We have developed a culture that questions the system, which was seen in the turnout in the recent elections which were very low,” one Pudemo member tells me. “The population might be loosing faith in the system but they need to see democratic parties such as Pudemo as a credible alternative for them to face the risks of being politically active.”

This is why Pudemo is developing and increasing its media-work and its programme of consciousness-building, all of which has in turn helped bolster party membership.

The population seem less intimidated by the regimes repressive measures and cultural propaganda as a result, a fact that we saw during a visit to a newly formed Pudemo branch in the rural areas. “As long as we have such a criminal government,” a young man told those assembled at a branch meeting, “we are helpless. We need a new government that allows political parties and is not controlled by the king.”

There generally seems to be a new-found optimism within the party, both due to the hard work of Pudemo and the positive effects of the project with the Red-Green Alliance, that Pudemo President Mario Masuku believes will produce concrete results in the not-so-distant future. “Many believe that the elections in 2018 could well be held under a multiparty democratic system,” he tells me.

But for this to happen it is vital that Pudemo is prepared for future events such as negotiations with the state on a transition to multiparty democracy and for actual election campaigning, that a larger part of the population are willing to become politically active even though they face state repression by doing so, and that Pudemo continues to develop its policies, so that they are both visionary and relate to the concrete problems of the population – all matters that are underway as integral parts of the project with the Red-Green Alliance.

“This is in fact what makes us different from the other political parties and organisations,” a member of Pudemo tells me. “We don’t get a consultant to make our political programme. We do it ourselves together with the  people of Swaziland, which ensures that our policies are rooted in the everyday experiences of ordinary people”.

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