Libyans are celebrating their first free national election in 60 years after defying violence to turn out for a poll widely seen as drawing a line under Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship.
Revellers lit the night sky over the capital Tripoli with fireworks while in the eastern city of Benghazi, scene of anti-poll protests by those wanting more autonomy, people celebrated by firing rocket-propelled grenades in the direction of the sea.
Even in Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, which saw some of the worst fighting and damage in last year’s NATO-backed uprising to end his 42-year rule, there was relief that the vote on Saturday had gone smoothly.
“Allahu akbar (God is greatest), this is the freedom era – for the first time Sirte is free,” chanted a local woman as she celebrated with her family.
One man was shot dead by a security guard on Saturday as he tried to steal a ballot box in the eastern town of Ajdabiya. Another was killed in gunfire in a clash between protesters and backers of the poll in Benghazi, cradle of last year’s uprising.
But as voting closed around the country, officials said 98 percent of poll centres had opened at some point during the day for the ballot for a 200-member assembly that will name a prime minister and pave the way for parliamentary elections in 2013.
The election commission said after voting ended that 1.6 million of some 2.8 million registered voters had cast their ballots, a turnout of just under 60 percent.
Asked at a news conference when results would be published, commission chairman Nuri Al-Abbar said they would start to emerge on Monday but added: “The first winner is the Libyan people.”
Candidates with Islamist agendas dominate the field of more than 3,700 hopefuls, suggesting Libya will be the next Arab Spring country – after Egypt and Tunisia – to see religious parties secure a grip on power.
The publication of results could yet be a potential flashpoint if rival factions dispute the outcome in a country still awash with arms from its civil war.