Libyan Elections 2012: Underlying Challenges and Prospects

In less than 100 days Libya will witness the first elections since 1964 to elect the National Assembly that will replace the National Transitional Council, NTC, in running the country, and these elections are organised in a country that has experienced an armed conflict following a peaceful popular uprising that resulted in the overthrow of Gaddafi’s brutal regime.

In Libya, elections are seen as the last step in a transition and peace-building process, and are meant to mark the return of a “legitimate” authority, sanctioned by the ballot. They are considered a necessary step without which the transition from war to peace would not be possible, a necessary ingredient on the road to stability.

The elections will be organised under the supervision of the international community, especially as the latter has been involved in the toppling of Gaddafi’s regime and bringing hostilities to an end.

Elections in post-conflict Libya are quite unlike other elections that we know about. The elections are simultaneously conducted alongside other initiatives such as disarmament or measures taken to ensure the restoration of security and rule of law. They sometimes make little use of internal mobilisation and organisation capacities, which means that these processes can be relatively artificial in some areas.

For example, the logistics and technicalities of the elections in areas like Sirte and Tawergah where populations have been displaced could pose huge obstacle in conducting inclusive elections with fair access to all.

Moreover, they are often seen as an end, when in fact they only constitute to a mere step toward transition to democracy and they alone cannot ensure that the authorities to emerge from the elections will exercise their mandate democratically with many pressing and underlying issues remaining unresolved such as, armed militias, transitional justice and national reconciliation etc.

Moreover, as Libya has just emerged from an armed conflict, they involve a number of risks, since they can polarise even more societies that have already been divided by a conflict. Such polarisation could transform the collective electoral act into direct or indirect confrontation between different factions of the Libyan society.

Especially, with the recent calls for autonomy of eastern Libya that have caused huge controversial debate in the country about the issue. Such events might have awakened historical fissures in the society and are proving to be of huge concern for the NTC and its electoral commission.

The NTC has recently made amendments to Article 30 of the Transitional Constitution Announcement to calm the fears of the Libyan people especially in Eastern and Southern regions. However, the changes made were deemed as insufficient.

Thus, elections should not be considered the magical formula to solve all the ills of a country emerging from a conflict (and the people of Libya should be informed and educated about this).

But why, then, is this relatively risk-laden step forward so crucial, and why does it often mobilise significant contributions from all concerned parties and players? Elections in countries emerging from conflicts are seen by the international community as a necessary condition to rebuild a state. This task is, at bottom, more achievable and more manageable than that, for instance, of rebuilding the administration or an army or of fighting corruption.

Focusing mainly on the organisation of elections by the NTC and the government means setting a reachable technical objective, which can signal the beginning of the crisis-ridden redevelopment in Libya. Moreover, these elections often constitute the only option on which factions of the Libyan society agree.

Despite the risks involved in such a polarizing process political stakeholders and armed groups don’t have another possibility but to definitely put an end to the chaos and have a better representative body to run the country.

The “democracy kit” in Libya is coming together nicely (including multiparty system, new Constitution, free media, free and fair elections), and multilateral organisations and embassies, and of which elections constitute one of the indispensable elements.

In Libya throughout the ongoing process of restoring civil and military peace, key players have to keep to the same plan: a transition government must lead to a legitimate government stemming from free and democratic elections, often organized before the guns have fallen silent and armed groups are dismantled.

These post-conflict elections could be crowned with success, but could also lead to failure. If elections go well, the country can continue on the road to democracy and peace. But if they don’t, democracy can be undermined and the country can descend into conflict or a prolonged transitional period.

Thus, elections can contribute to (re)establishing the rule of law, just as they can exacerbate tensions or revive violence, often along historical fissures (caused by tribal and regional tensions, which have been fuelled even further during Gaddafi’s rule) and foreign exploitation.

There are very crucial areas to look out for and address before, during and after the upcoming elections in Libya:

Firstly, the importance given by the international community to elections that would play a highly symbolic part in the democratic transition process in Libya. Nevertheless, these polls are not a panacea as they are being held in a country in which democratic dialogue, individual security and often political governance is showing serious shortcomings. They require massive investments, though they could not, simply through the electoral principle alone, provide solutions to the problems which triggered the conflicts or resulted from them.

It is probable that elections focused the attention and efforts of the NTC and the government because they constituted a “technical” objective which was measurable, programmable and thus easier to reach.

Secondly, the hope these polls generate in populations which, after much suffering, probably expect more from these elections than they could deliver: security and stability, development and well-being. The high turnout, in the first post-conflict elections in Libya, would reveal the populations’ level of belief in them.

Exercising the right to vote for some would require much effort, as citizens might have to travel long distances and wait hours in front of a polling station in order to make their voice heard. This energy could, in the future, turn into mass lethargy if the polls were no longer considered credible or if the new elected government doesn’t fulfil all the populations’ wide expectations.

Thirdly, the ongoing insecurity in some parts of Libya is threatening stability and unity of the country. These elections aim to install a dynamic to reinforce peace, though insecurity and armed militias’ culture continues. Destabilising the electoral process could even become an objective of some armed factions in Libya. The perspective of elections could fuel conflicts and increase instability, though they are often presented as the culmination of the peace process.

Fourthly, one must underline the logistical challenge posed by the organisation of elections in Libya, as the NTC has just managed to draw up the voting districts map, which undoubtedly would fuel regional debate on the issue. Also, the formal registration process for elections has not started yet with only three months left.

Census data in Libya is unreliable or unavailable, transport could prove to be difficult. Not only did the Gaddafi regime block development, but also led to the deterioration of the infrastructure, thus making the task of those organising the elections even more complicated. When logistical challenges combine with political manipulations, it can be difficult to determine which dysfunctions are tied to technical problems, fraud or informal mechanisms curtailing freedom.

Many in Libya talk about the success story of the Misurata elections. Indeed, they were very successful and a good example for the rest of Libya, however when talking about national elections the issue becomes a completely different territory technically and logistically. Many areas in Libya lack the human resources, expertise and skills that were available in Misurata to manage lead and execute the process.

There is also the issue of displaced population. For example, Tawergah is empty and thousands have been displaced and there is no sign of them returning back yet, due to the tensions between the people of Tawergah and the people of Misurata. This raises the question of has the NTC and the government considered the issue of how, where will these displaced populations be able to vote? Would they return to their homes or would there be special voting arrangements in place for them to be able to participate in the upcoming elections?

The same applies to many in Sirte as well who have been displaced, and also there has been huge amount of influx from Sirte into Benghazi and they are all residing there now (property prices have jumped unprecedentedly in Benghazi, with many people from Sirte relocating), it remains a mystery if the NTC has considered the issue.

There are also very remote areas that will have to be brought together into one voting district and that is due to the huge geographical area of the country. The NTC lacks the capacity to address these technical and logistical issues that would make the logistics and technicalities of the elections a huge challenge (this challenge was not there when Misurata elections were conducted.)

The registration process for voters has not yet started, and that might prove to be a huge logistical challenge for the NTC and the government. There is a valid argument that in case the NTC failed to register all voters, an ID proof and a finger dipped in ink would suffice, and such arrangement worked well in neighbouring Tunisia.

However, the Gaddafi government issued over 40,000 citizenships (family booklets) to non-Libyans during the war and these are non-Libyans. Such issue would be problematic for the NTC and the authorities if the people came on the day to just vote with such arrangement (i.e. elections would end up with non-Libyans voting).

Furthermore, the authority and the prestige of the NTC and the government are almost non-existent and undermined by the armed militias and the entities behind them. The government offices have recently been raided in protest by fighters from outside Tripoli, and one NTC member was arrested by an armed militia in Tripoli, with the NTC and the government hopeless in tackling such evident armed militias’ culture.

The electoral process could also be undermined with the presence of such armed factions, unless these factions are employed effectively and properly to be part of the process and ensure its success.

Finally, the issues highlighted above puts the development of the Libyan situation into two possible scenarios, i.e. conducting the elections as planned or postponing the elections. These two scenarios are even or one worse than the other.

Such is thus the context of these electoral processes, in which the media will need to play a central part in informing the citizens about all the underlying issues associated with these upcoming elections.

(Source: Tripoli Post)

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