By: Alicia Swinamer, MYC National Director
Swaziland: a small country nestled between South Africa and Mozambique. Home to people so friendly you’d think you were in the Maritimes, beautiful mountains and some very scary dirt roads. As a member of the Commonwealth, Swaziland has benefited from the tough love, good offices and technical support of the Secretariat, such as providing legal experts to help draft its constitution.
When the King, by Royal Proclamation, announced the disillusion of Parliament, triggering an election, Swaziland invited the Commonwealth to send a team of observers. Priding itself with quality over quantity, the Secretary General asked only five individuals from around the globe to make up the team (only 4 made it). We were led by the humorous and thoughtful, former President of Malawi, Dr. Mulizi. The rest of the team comprised of, an electoral commissioner from Ghana, Mrs Sa-adatu Maida, the head of the open campus in Grenada for the University of the West Indies, Mr. Curtis Jacobs and me, MYCommonwealth National Director.
We were tasked with observing the various factors impacting on the credibility of the electoral process as a whole. In order to do this we met with the electoral commission, would be political parties (they are currently banned), civil society groups, unions, the police, candidates, the media, election observers from other organizations and Heads of Mission. We deployed in teams of two to the regions of Swaziland for election day, watched the opening of the polls, drove around-up and down mountains- to observe as many polling stations as we could and then came back to our first poll to watch the close and count. After recovering from a long election day-counting didn't end until 9am the next day-we packed up and headed back to base to debrief with the rest of our team. We met again with other election observers and Heads of Mission and followed up with some of the groups we had met with to clarify some facts. For the next three days our team of four observers and the wonderful Commonwealth Secretariat staff team, spent morning-to-night writing the report that we would give to the Secretary General (we will post the report on our website when it is available). Our measure for establishing a creditable and democratic election was whether or not Swaziland upheld the values of the Commonwealth and other international protocols which it is a signatory.
Being an observer was an amazing experience, but very emotionally and intellectually complex. When I heard accounts of women being discriminated against for wearing pants, peaceful protests being broken up for no reason and the King overruling a decision of Parliament-part of me wanted to scream “how can this be happening in 2013!”, stop the meeting and DO something about all of this. Not quite my mandate or the diplomatic approach that the Commonwealth had been pursuing, so instead I got very quiet, angry and pondered questions like: how do you balance culture and modern values? When does assisting turn into enabling? I don’t know the answers, but I have come to understand and appreciate some of the Commonwealth’s tactics, which can seem painfully slow at times or underwhelming, but do show results and importantly, give hope.
Our presence in Swaziland was appreciated by all that we spoke to, from government officials to the most radical would-be political parties. I hope that our report will be taken seriously and that our recommendations will be implemented-starting with allowing political parties and securing equality between men and women. I look forward to seeing some progressive change in Swaziland.