Constitution to be passed by parliament

King Mswati III has decided that Swaziland's new palace-authored constitution will be debated and passed by parliament.

He recently said parliament was the proper body to pass the new constitution, because its members were elected by local constituencies. The king had previously said he would decree the constitution into existence by year's end.

Under the draft constitution, parliament and the courts are subservient to monarchial rule; the king may suspend civil liberties in the name of an unspecified "national interest"; and political opposition parties will continue to be banned.

However, human rights and legal groups are questioning Mswati's decision. "By using parliament, the palace is hoping to create the appearance of democracy," a source at the Swaziland Law Society told IRIN.

Lawyers for Human Rights questioned parliament's credibility in view of the royal decree banning political parties.

The king has absolute power and has vetoed laws passed by parliament, as well as promulgated laws without parliament's input. The king may also dissolve the legislature.

"We do not see a difference between the king's proclamation ... of 12 April 1973, which vests all governmental power and functions in the king, and the draft constitution, which does the same," said the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) in a statement.

The NCA, a non-governmental group, seeks a national constitutional convention with elected members from communities, and the authority to create a governing document. The current draft constitution began with a 1996 royal decree and was compiled by two of the king's brothers, Prince Mangaliso Dlamini and Prince David Dlamini, who are respectively the Ministers of Justice and Constitutional Affairs.

In a statement, the Swaziland Council of Churches questioned whether parliament had sufficient independence to debate the draft constitution.

"The current draft still bestows far too much power on His Majesty the King, thereby making a mockery of the notion of separation of powers," said Roman Catholic Bishop Ncamiso Ndlovu, chairman of the council.

"The attempt at fusing Swazi custom and modern democratic tenets has failed dismally, as it leaves Swazis at the mercy of a customary system that can barely understand itself. The constitution falls far too short of the standards that any forward-looking society can aspire to," said Ndlovu.

In an interview with IRIN, Prince David Dlamini countered that Swazis were involved in all stages of the constitutional process, and had been given the opportunity to express their views on the type of governance they wanted to a royal commission - views he restated in court papers filed this week in response to a lawsuit brought by the NCA to block implementation of the draft constitution.

Prince David also accused the NCA of misunderstanding Swaziland's political hierarchy. "At the apex of that hierarchy is His Majesty the King, who has the power to issue decrees which are binding. Thereafter, in the hierarchy, comes the legislature, which also has the power to make legislation," he said.

A law society source said the justice minister was also reaffirming the primacy of the king's power over the legislature, which put into question the independence of action MPs might have when debating the draft constitution.

Critics of the constitutional commission noted that no data had been released on the number of Swazis who made submissions to the commission, or what was said. The press had also been barred from covering the proceedings.

The Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, the Swaziland Federation of Labour and two banned political parties joined the NCA in its lawsuit, which said the draft constitution was inconsistent with the African Union's Charter and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) Declaration.

In response, justice minister Dlamini said: "Whilst the government of Swaziland may be a party to the African Charter and the NEPAD Declaration, this represents an executive and not a legislative act. The provisions of these international instruments are not embodied in any Swaziland legislation and, in the absence thereof, they do not grant rights to Swaziland citizens that may be enforced in a court of law."

The justice ministry contended that such accords, signed by Swaziland, were "instruments that regulate relations between states".

In an interview with the Times of Swaziland King Mswati agreed, saying that political parties would remain banned, despite any accords signed by government.

"Swaziland is a member of world bodies, and is expected to abide by the rules of affiliation, which is why we found ourselves signatory to these conventions. When it comes to ratifying them, in our case, the people are not yet ready for a multiparty state," Mswati was quoted as saying.