I am about to break the number one rule of dinner conversation. It can hardly be avoided, though, as politics appears to be the topic du jour given recent federal elections in, both, my home and adopted countries. Religion, it seems, is part-and-parcel of these conversations.
In the early 1960’s, Britain began preparations for an independent Swaziland, starting with the drafting of a constitution. With a typical authoritative attitude, they drafted a constitution that went against the grain of Swaziland’s traditions and quickly generated a dislike for political parties among the locals. When the country held their first democratic elections in 1964, traditionalist Swazi supporters (affiliated to the royal house) got their own back and formed their own party at the last minute, winning the majority. The party promptly developed a new constitution, handing all executive powers to the King. Five years after independence, King Sobhuza II scrapped the constitution completely and banned all political parties with it.
Fast forward to 2013. Swaziland remains an absolute monarchy, one of just seven in the whole world. Although King Mswati III (Sobhuza’s successor) drew up a new constitution in 2002 (with some very good elements, including a Bill of Rights), it maintained absolute rule and the banning of political parties.
Despite this, every five years, Swazis go to the polls. This is how it works: A couple of months prior to election day, citizens register to vote. This is where budding MPs convince their friends and family to register in their electorate so that they can gain a groundswell of support from early on. Then the community come together to nominate candidates, all of whom must be approved by the Chief of that area. Naturally, those same budding MPs plant their supportive friends / family in the audience to ensure a nomination and, just as naturally, the Chiefs also weigh in by occasionally rejecting nomination of women who are wearing pants or who are widows (despite this being against the constitution and electoral rules).
Then the candidates campaign. This involves travelling as a group to each community in their electorate, where they state their case one-by-one while the other candidates remain out of earshot. Budding MPs are once again ahead of the game by planting supporters in the audience to heckle and start rumours about their opponents. Finally, come election day, people get to stretch their democratic muscle by voting for their preferred candidate or, at least, for the candidate that offered them the biggest bribes or gifts.
Swazis elect 55 members to the House of Assembly, one per Inkhundla (Chiefdom), while the King chooses the other 10 in the 65-strong house. From this, the House of Assembly chooses 10 people to be part of the Senate while the King, once again, adds his own choice of 20 to fill the remaining seats. The King then chooses the Prime Minister and government ministers. So, after all the voting, it appears the winner is, as usual, the King.
I recognise that this is a very cynical view and one based purely on what I have heard from my fellow Swazis and from the national newspapers. I have no doubt that this system works for many constituencies, but it is easy to see how the will of the people is somewhat constrained.
In comparison, Australia has the luxury of a being a completely democratic country. Every three years or so, legally-sanctioned political parties and independents campaign hard based on a range of policies. Come election time, there is a distinct lack of violence or corruption as the vast majority of the population go to the polls and choose their representatives and, ultimately, their Prime Minister. It is a picture-perfect model of democracy.
Yet, to think that this system has any higher level of integrity than Swaziland’s is to be as naive as a person eating polony because they think it’s made of meat. As recent elections show, the Australian people do not vote based on party policies or on fact, but on a bunch of slogans and one-liners that invoke fear or degrade others while being devoid of much resembling truth and evidence. Of course, there are also those elected by preferential default, such as the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts’ Party, the Sport Enthusiasts’ Party, and the Clive Palmer Party. This picture-perfect model of democracy is looking a little skew.
I’m sure by now, though, you’re eager to hear how religion fits in. Well, it seems our great leaders are jumping on the religion bandwagon to lend some form of clandestine, moralistic support to their agendas.
On the eve of the 2013 election, when Swaziland was suffering a great storm, the great King Mswati III received a vision from above. That vision was to rename the Tinkhundla system of governance to “Monarchial Democracy”, so that the international community would understand it better. Yes, of all the visions that the King could have had about the issues plaguing his country (highest HIV rates, lowest life expectancy, extreme poverty to name a few), this was the priority. The term “Monarchial Democracy” has been so effective in clarifying the nation’s governance system that Mswati III had to lecture the UN General Assembly about it recently, which he did so as “the marriage between the monarchy and the ballot box. The combination of power with empowerment”. Huh?
Meanwhile, in Australia, Tony Abbott’s history in a seminarian and the wearing of Catholicism on his sleeve has attracted a throng of Christian-right followers. This is despite the fact that he has stated that “his faith doesn’t in any way determine his politics”, and that “religion should not justify a political point of view”.
By turning away people seeking protection, slashing support to the world’s disadvantaged, abolishing environmental initiatives aimed at protecting mankind, and condoning abortion in certain circumstances, it has become very clear that Christianity does not determine Tony Abbott’s politics. This begs the question, though: why he is so attractive to the Christian sects?
I put this question out to the very few publicly-proclaimed, liberal-voting Christians that I know. Interestingly, all responses followed the same vein and went like this (to quote one respondant): “There are too many do-gooders. Do-gooders are the problem”. Now, admittedly, there were occasions during Sunday Mass that I was distracted by the rabbit-shaped cloud flouting outside the window, but I’m fairly sure I didn’t miss the part of the bible that says “People who do good are THE problem. Their numbers must be curtailed”. Bewildering.
So, in response, I would like to end this rant with a part of the bible that I definitely did not miss during Mass, and one that our political leaders, and all their voters, would do well to take heed of: “As you wish that others would do to you, do also to them. There is no greater commandment than these”. Wise words, God, wise words.