Libyan planned elections: A clear way out of turmoil or a return to conflict?

It is significant to have a confirmed, explicit legitimate and constitutional structure for the presidential and parliamentary polls in Libya, in addition to a safe environment to ensure elections can be held. 

On 12 November, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted a summit in Paris on Libya, co-organised by the UN, Germany and Italy. The summit brought together regional and international heads of state to support the ongoing political process in Libya, in particular the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled to take place on 24 December.

Unsurprisingly, the summit ended without any meaningful international efforts to support the country’s stabilisation. 

Countries that attended the conference have agreed to consider sanctions on any person who “disrupts” the election, yet serious issues remain in regards to the constitutional framework that still have not been agreed upon by rivalling legislative branches in Libya, as the High National Electoral Commission is still moving forward in accepting candidacy applications for presidential elections.

Holding elections is imperative in forming a single central authority that would enjoy electoral legitimacy and recognition by the international community, which could lead to stability and democracy for Libya. Yet, this all depends on the timing of these elections and the consequent environment in which they take place.

Over the past few years, attempts for a political resolution to Libya’s conflict have failed at several conferences, including those held in Paris, Palermo, Abu Dhabi and Berlin. 

One reason none of these conferences achieved any breakthrough is a result of the disparate international and regional approaches to Libya. Countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), France, Egypt and Russia have pledged their support for the UN-backed peace processes, yet they have seemingly never stopped pursuing their own political and strategic interests. In turn, this has deepened divisions within Libya and encouraged various local actors to not compromise or work together towards stability and peace.

One avenue for a solution is the October 2020 agreement signed by Libya’s warring parties, which aimed to end the fighting between the various sides and paved the way towards a political solution to the country’s ongoing conflict. This diplomatic leverage was only possible due to major defeats inflicted on Khalifa Haftar‘s militias by previous UN-backed Government of National Accord(GNA) forces. 

The ceasefire agreement created a basis for the political negotiations and established an interim government that has the important task of preparing the country for elections in December, along with commitments to unify Libya’s divided financial and security institutions.

Despite the formation of this new government, progress has been thwarted by entrenched internal and external spoilers and structural elements. Some local actors within the disputing sides, but especially in the eastern part of Libya, do benefit from the status quo such as members of the Libyan House of Representatives (HoR) including Aguila Saleh, speaker of HoR, and Haftar, who seems to be more interested in clinging to power rather than helping the country move forward.  

Other than external factors, a significant obstacle to the elections is the absence of a firm constitutional basis. To date, there is no framework to define who should run for the presidency and what their powers should be. 

A presidential elections bill was signed in September by the speaker of HoR, Aguila Saleh, but it sparked anger and division among critics who say it bypassed due process and favoured a run by either Haftar or Saleh. Ultimately, the election bill was rejected by an advisory body called the High State Council. 

According to an article from the draft constitution, individuals with dual citizenship like Haftar cannot be a candidate for the presidency. Nevertheless, Haftar intends to run in the planned presidential election in December, pursuing this political course after his failure to seize the capital by force. Haftar is a divisive character because of his involvement in Libya’s last war, and his attempts to conduct several coups over the past years. He is not regarded as a consensus candidate for presidency, especially in the western part of Libya.

Another example of brewing issues to the electoral process emerged recently as Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi submitted his candidacy for Libya’s presidential elections in Sabha. He has yet to have his registration officially approved, yet promotional pictures have already been released of him, suggesting that he is eligible to run for office despite being wanted by the International Criminal Court and the General Prosecutor in Tripoli.

Whatever basis for elections is found, it has to receive broad-based support otherwise it could provoke a major escalation between rival parts. Even if the elections take place on time in December, the lack of a major support from a wide range of Libyan societies could increase the odds that one side of the conflict will reject the results, and plunge the country back into war.

Despite the progress that has been made in recent months, there are a few dynamics that could still spoil the political progress and undermine the prospects for a more sustainable political settlement in the country, these include: the presence of foreign fighters and mercenaries, Haftar’s role, international and regional actors interference, a lack of general consensus on the election laws might set the stage for continued gridlock.

To surmount this gridlock, there is an urgent need to find a general consensus on the constitution and the preparation of presidential and parliamentary elections with appropriate voting laws. In that regard, it is significant to have a confirmed, explicit legitimate and constitutional structure for the presidential and parliamentary polls, in addition to a safe environment to ensure elections can be held. 

This article originally appeared in the opinion section of The New Arab website.

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