Voters in Eswatini, Africa's last absolute monarchy, cast their ballots on Friday for legislative elections that despite recent -- and deadly -- pro-democracy protests are unlikely to change the political scenery in the tightly controlled kingdom.
More than 500,000 people are registered to vote in the impoverished southern African nation, where King Mswati III wields absolute power.
Some whispered "democracy" as they lined up outside schools and churches turned into polling stations -- but without much conviction.
"We need roads, our streets are dirty, we need people to come collect our garbage," said Busisiwe Matsebula, 75, as she waited outside a voting station in the capital, Mbabane, wearing a traditional dress and a scarf over her head.
Voters are to choose 59 members of the lower house of parliament, which plays only an advisory role to the monarch.
Polls opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and will close at 7:00 pm (1700 GMT).
Formerly known as Swaziland, Eswatini was shaken in 2021 by pro-democracy protests that were violently quashed by security forces, with dozens of people killed.
But on Friday there was no sign of turmoil. Street vendors quietly set up shop on the sidewalks outside polling stations as voters came and went.
The results, to be announced within a few days, are seen as a foregone conclusion by the opposition, which has largely called for a boycott of the vote.
"They are saying that there are elections that are free and fair (but) there is nothing like that," said Sakhile Nxumalo, 28, who heads the Swaziland Youth Congress, the youth wing of a banned pro-democracy party.
"We don't take this election seriously because they serve the interests of only a few."
Political parties are banned in the landlocked country between South Africa and Mozambique, and lawmakers cannot be affiliated with political groups.
The constitution emphasises "individual merit" as the basis for selecting MPs. While it allows for freedom of association, opposition groupings are often run from abroad.
Candidates were nominated during village councils by traditional chiefs close to the king.
Most are loyal to King Mswati, who holds all the cards.
- 'The system shall stay' -
In power since 1986, the 55-year-old is constitutionally above the law.
He appoints the prime minister and the cabinet, can dissolve both parliament and the government, and commands police and the army.
Acts of parliament need his seal of approval to come into force.
"We live in a dictatorship. If one raises his voice, the police come knocking at his door at night and charge him for treason or something," said Thantaza Silolo, spokesperson for the largest opposition group, the Swaziland Liberation Movement (Swalimo).
Two opposition lawmakers elected in the last vote in 2018 are now in jail. A third is in exile.
"Monarchy is not a political system but a traditional system," Moses Dlamini, 75, an adviser to the king, told AFP.
"The system shall stay as it is".
King Mswati, has been widely criticised for his lavish lifestyle while nearly a third of the country's 1.2 million people live below the poverty line.
Infrastructure is minimal in the country dotted by green hills.
"Life in Eswatini is terrible, terrible," said Phinah Nxumalo, 58, who sells spinach and dried corn kernels, used to make a local type of porridge, a low-cost and popular meal.
Her stall is nestled in the bustling market of Manzini, the kingdom's economic capital, where women in traditional garments shop amid piles of colourful vegetables and cheap clothes.
"Our kids are educated, we groom them but they're staying at home because there's no job. It doesn't make sense," said Nxumalo.
She does not name the king. Criticising the monarch can lead straight to prison.