Security threats were foremost on the media’s minds in the lead up to Libya’s first elections in 50 years. The Libyan Public National Conference elections were postponed to 7 July from an initial date of 19 June.
In the period leading up to Saturday’s elections there were a number of security threats, most notably the attack on the Libyan Election Commission’s offices on 1 June. The deputy head of the Commission, Emad al-Sayeh, insisted at the time that there were not enough security forces to intervene in such events.
The expected uptick in violence generally didn’t materialise, with some incidents in the south and east being reported. Voter turnout was relatively high at 60 percent, especially among women who, according to a reporter in Sirte, accounted for 35-40 percent in some districts.
Final election results are due by 20 July, at the latest; however, with the majority of the votes counted, the moderate National Forces Alliance has built up an unassailable lead.
The Public National Conference elections were a precursor to general elections in Libya. After the elections, an elected Conference will draw up a constitution which, if approved in a public referendum, will lead to general elections within six months.
The election in numbers
In all there were 142 registered parties comprising of 1 206 candidates. Further to this, there are 2 501 independent candidates – according to Libya’s High National Election Commission (HNEC). A number of explicit laws were laid out for the Conference elections, in particular:
- Parties may not be connected to militias and, accordingly, their funding must be transparent;
- Parties cannot contradict Islamic law; and
- In April 2012 the NTC passed a law banning political parties formed on the basis of religious, ethnic, or tribal affiliations.
This ban was lifted in May, however, after it prompted a widespread outcry from Libya’s burgeoning Islamist scene.
The HNEC designated an eighteen-day window for political campaigning, running from 18 June to 5 July – including voting day. Libya was divided in to three voting districts with over 1 500 registration centres.
Approximately 2,7 million Libyans (83 percent) were eligible to vote, a significant number of whom turned out on voting day. The Libyan diaspora, specifically those in the UK, USA, UAE, Germany and Canada could vote abroad, while African-based Libyans had to make the trip back to Libya to cast their vote.
On Saturday, 1 July, a group of militiamen and protestors stormed the HNEC headquarters in Benghazi and set fire to voting slips. In southern Libya the Tabu tribe has threatened to boycott the elections if the government does not withdraw its forces and tanks from a southern desert city where clashes have killed dozens.
In April a disgruntled militia was able to by-pass security forces and take control of Tripoli international airport for hours. Because Libya’s security forces were incapable of over powering the militia, volunteer brigades had to assist in the taking back of the airport. The head of the airport-occupying Zintani militia, Mokhtar Lakhdar, said he would boycott the vote as no election could be deemed representative until the country had stabilised.
On the day preceding the elections, gunmen shot at a helicopter carrying election workers near Benghazi, and one election commission employee was killed. A 48 hour strike at the eastern terminals was also enforced by militants, which saw Libya’s oil exports drop by approximately 300 000 barrels a day – according to Reuters.
There were a number of calls from other militia to boycott the elections, including a call from a self-proclaimed autonomous council for Libya’s oil-producing eastern province who insisted the elections would not give adequate representation to the east.
Three main groups contested the Conference elections. The first is a group of secular-minded modernists led by Mahmoud Jibril and Ali Tarhouni. Jibril served as the de facto prime minister after Gaddafi was displaced and currently heads the centrist National Forces’ Alliance. Tarhouni, who served as the finance-and-oil minister in the immediate post-Gaddafi administration, is a former teacher in Seattle, USA. The relationship between the two is said to be tense, while some are distrustful of Jibril who served under Gaddafi as economy minister before turning on him.
The second grouping – under the National Salvation Front – set up shop in the early 1980s in opposition to Gaddafi. They were subsequently forced abroad and have recently made a return. The party has been criticised for making practically no mark on Libyan politics since their return as well as their aging executive.
The final grouping comprises of Islamic-based parties – at the head of which we find el-Watan. El-Watan which is headed by Abdel Hakim Belhaj was once head of the now defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and is believed to have close ties to al-Qaeda. However, Belhaj says he has renounced his jihadist roots. His critics note his party’s maroon-and-white colours match those of his purported sponsor, Qatar.
Also under the Islamist flag is the Justice and Development party. Led by Muhammad Suwan, they are said to have the closest ties to the Muslim Brotherhood of all the Islamist parties in Libya. There is a glut of Islamic-based parties contesting the elections, some more extreme than others and this is likely to split the Islamic vote.
The high voter turnout was contrary to both what the international media was expecting and what a number of militia groups wanted. Initial reports coming out of Libya suggest that Jibril’s National Forces’ Alliance is likely to be the largest single party but unlikely to get an absolute majority of the seats up for grabs. If this is the case they will have to set up a coalition in order to gain control of the Conference.
The National Forces’ Alliance took 55 percent of the vote in Tripoli and 68 percent in Benghazi and its surrounding areas. A local publication also indicated that Jibril’s coalition accounted for 54 percent of the national vote with the Justice and Development Party garnering just 12 percent. This was in spite of the “well-funded, well-organised” Muslim Brotherhood campaign in the lead up to the elections. According to Libyan political analyst, Nasser Ahdash, Libyans saw an openness in Jibril after 40 years of Gaddafi’s secrecy. The less secular parties clearly did not offer this, nor was the electorate homogenous enough for Muslim dominated parties to win this time round.
The significant numbers of independent (non-aligned) candidates make it difficult to predict the shape of the government to come. However, the trend in the other Arab Spring countries where Muslim-dominated parties took power relatively easily is far from guaranteed in Libya.
The coming months in the lead up to the general elections will be crucial for the moderates. They are likely to face stiff opposition from outlying areas, if only by a small number of opposition groups. Additionally, the world’s economic woes and middling oil prices will put pressure on Libya’s new rulers and may see them lose favour in the coming period.