What is at stake in Libya's elections?

Tuesday December 14 2021
A ballot box

A ballot box. The presidential election set for a week on Friday, December 24, 2021, is far from certain to go ahead, partly because of bitter wrangling over the legal basis for the vote. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


Libya is meant to elect its president in 10 days, but in a war-torn country riven by caustic feuds and institutional divisions, few believe polling will even go ahead.

The vote was to be the culmination of a United Nations-led process aimed at turning the page on the violence that has wracked Libya since the revolt that toppled and killed dictator Muammar Gadaffi in 2011.

But with question marks hanging over the election, the security situation and the credibility of the process, what comes next?

Will the vote happen?

The presidential election set for a week on Friday is far from certain to go ahead, partly because of bitter wrangling over the legal basis for the vote.

Aguilah Saleh, the speaker of Libya's eastern-based parliament, unilaterally passed a law in September that allows his ally Khalifa Haftar to run for the top job.


Haftar is despised in western Libya after a year-long assault on the capital Tripoli in 2019-20, but his forces control much of the country's east and south.

The law also says there should be two weeks between the publication of the final list of candidates and the vote itself. But on Saturday the elections authority delayed announcing the list, making it even less likely the vote will take place on time. 

What about the security situation?

Analysts have warned that the conditions are not in place for a free and fair vote across Libya.

And despite a year-long ceasefire, several security incidents and movements of forces have raised fears of a return to conflict.

In recent weeks, armed men blocked access to a court in Sebha that was examining an appeal against the electoral commission which had rejected the application of Seif al-Islam Kadhafi -- son of the slain dictator.

They finally withdrew and the court restored his candidacy, but the incident sparked expressions of concern from the interim government and the UN.

Interior Minister Khaled Mazen later warned that the interim government could not guarantee security at polling stations.

Haftar has been accused of seeking to create a military dictatorship, and few believe residents of eastern Libya will be able to safely vote against him.

"The minimum threshold of infrastructure and safety requirements for a free and fair election are not in place at this point," said Amanda Kadlec, former member of a UN panel of experts on Libya.

Moreover, the ballot has already been marred by accusations of fraud. Some voters have complained on social media that they have gone to collect their voter registration cards, only to find that they have already been collected.

Will the results be accepted?

If the polls do go ahead, there is no guarantee all sides will accept the result.

Rivals of each of the three perceived front runners have cast doubts over their candidacies -- and each has armed forces who back their claims. 

Few in western Libya would accept a Haftar victory.

Seif al-Islam Kadhafi is wanted by the International Criminal Court for suspected crimes against humanity and his candidacy has been contested in Libyan courts for similar reasons.

And before he was appointed interim premier, Abdulhamid Dbeibah had committed not to run -- before finally throwing his hat into the ring after a string of populist moves.

What challenges will the next government face?

Any government resulting from the elections will face colossal challenges after four decades of dictatorship and a decade of war.

A key test will be whether they can reunite state institutions, including the central bank, which split in 2014 as a rival administration took power in eastern Libya.

Unifying or disbanding armed forces that were fighting each other until mid-2020 will also pose complex challenges -- especially as some 20,000 foreign fighters remain on Libyan soil.

Drawing up a constitution will also be priority: Libya has been without one since Kadhafi scrapped the last one in 1969, and the lack of such a document has been at the heart of disputes over the current electoral process.

For ordinary Libyans, the priorities are more mundane: security, revival of the moribund economy, reconstruction of war-ravaged infrastructure and an end to interminable power cuts. 

Key to Libya's relations with European powers will be the subject of sub-Saharan African migrants, tens of thousands of whom try to use the country as a launch pad for desperate bids to reach Europe.

Many face horrific abuses at the hands of people traffickers -- and human rights groups say the European Union bears responsibility for many violations.