The love that so many autocrats have for elections is almost pathological. Not by what we understand as free and open elections, which serve as an expression of the popular will, of course, but by overwhelming plebiscites in favor of the leader or by masquerades with democratic forms that allow them to sweeten their respective regimes before the world. This is the case of Mswati III, king of Swaziland, the last absolute monarch of Africa. The small kingdom nestled between South Africa and Mozambique, without access to the sea, with a population of 1.2 million inhabitants and an area similar to that of the province of Zaragoza, held yesterday a mock legislative election in which, it is already known, , the least important thing will be a result that will be known throughout the weekend.

Because, although more than half a million citizens had the right to vote to elect 59 members of the country’s Lower House – another 10 are directly appointed by the king – the powers of those who get the seat will be practically ridiculous, limited as They are to act as mere advisors to the sovereign, who has the last word in each law that is approved in the land. Thus, the majority of Swazi opposition groups had called for a boycott of the elections. It should also be noted that the candidates have been individual candidates, the vast majority being supporters of the king, because for half a century there have been no parties in the kingdom. For decades, they were banned. And although a new Constitution approved in 2005 does allow political associations in theory, Mswati III has already taken great care to develop the necessary legislation to allow such formations to emerge. In addition, civil rights organizations denounce that in recent years repression in the kingdom and persecution against dissidents have increased. There are several political prisoners who are rotting in Swazi prisons today and many other leaders are trying to raise their voices from exile.

The candidates who could be voted for yesterday had to overcome primaries weeks ago. The regime barely opened its hand so that a dozen eligible people could consider themselves opponents. “Democracy is not practiced much here,” Thantaza Silolo, spokesperson for the kingdom’s largest dissident group, the Swaziland Liberation Movement, told AFP sarcastically on the eve of election day. “It is a misnomer to call what is happening in the country elections,” Sivumelwano Nyembe, spokesperson for another pro-democracy activist group, said yesterday, as reported by Reuters.

Mswati III has ruled with an iron fist for 37 years. And until recently she was able to do it quite peacefully. Their exotic country was barely talked about in the international media when referring to the unclassifiable Festival of the Virgins in which every year thousands of half-naked teenagers dance before the plump sovereign so that he can choose a new woman from one of them – in the He currently has 14 wives. Or at most the little dictator appeared in foreign papers that echoed his very luxurious lifestyle, despite the fact that around 65% of the kingdom’s inhabitants live below the poverty line, and we are facing a country especially plagued by scourges such as unemployment or diseases such as HIV.

But things have begun to go wrong for Mswati III, who in 2018 decreed that the nation should no longer be called Swaziland and be renamed Eswatini – which means land of the Swazis in the local language. The king declared that he wanted his country to have a name that would not cause confusion outside his borders. “Whenever we go abroad, people refer to us as Switzerland,” he said irritably. Because pro-democracy protests have been taking place since 2021, including some episodes of intense violence.

In the middle of the aforementioned year, a real guerrilla war broke out in the country after the kingdom’s security forces repressed with extreme violence the participants in demonstrations in the capital and other cities that demanded democracy. Dozens of deaths were documented. And the regime imposed curfews, prohibited gatherings of citizens and resorted to methods such as blocking the internet to make mobilizations and coordination of opponents difficult.

And, more recently, last November, there were weeks of anti-government riots and the most violent episodes in the country since its independence from the United Kingdom just over half a century ago. The marches – harshly suppressed – to demand democracy, led largely by young students, were a clear sign of the fatigue with the authoritarian regime of many Swazis. Furthermore, to the demands to demand freedoms, many others of an economic or sectoral nature were added, with strikes, strikes and concentrations of groups such as transporters and even police subordinates who demanded decent wages and who were accused by the Government of being “terrorist agents infiltrated” to destabilize the nation.

The tension has not disappeared from the once peaceful kingdom. And the religious leaders of different Christian confessions intervened to demand that the Palace decisively commit to a “national dialogue” that is far from taking place. What is certain is that the masquerade at the polls this Friday will not satisfy any of Mswati III’s subjects who demand changes and a more hopeful future.

Stability in Eswatini is of great concern, logically, for the entire region, but especially for South Africa. The Cape Town authorities have historically been the greatest supporter of the Swazi monarchy and the status quo in the small kingdom. Although another much more powerful power, China, has more than just its eyes on Mbabane, because the former Swaziland is the only country in Africa that recognizes Taiwan’s sovereignty. Taipei appreciates Mswati III’s important diplomatic gesture by providing support in various areas. Although this modern confrontation of David against the Asian Goliath, together with the lack of reflexes and the hardening of not adopting political reforms, who knows if it will not cost the authoritarian monarch the throne sooner rather than later.