Libya’s election postponement farce: where do we go from here?

From the beginning, the election process in Libya was convoluted, confused, lacked clarity and transparency. 

After weeks of uncertainty, Libya‘s electoral commission recently suggested the elections be pushed back by a month to 24 January, owing to a lack of preparation and disagreements between different political forces on the legal basis of the poll.

These elections were meant to pull Libya out of a decade of turmoil and move the country forward from the conflict and deep division that followed the overthrow of long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. However, the election process did not go as planned; this does not come as a surprise.

While developments on the ground have long been hinting that this election cannot proceed, this postponement is likely to worsen the political, security and economic deterioration of the country as fears grow of looming political vacuum could lead to renewed conflict and economic instability.

For Libyans, as well as the international community, the December election raised a glimmer of hope that it could form a legitimate government that can achieve long-lasting stability and help energise the fragile economy.

Over the last few months preparing the country for the vote has been as daunting as they are numerous: providing security and order, removing foreign fighters and mercenaries and a lack of consensus on the election laws.

From the beginning, the election process in Libya was convoluted, confused, lacked clarity and transparency. The whole process has been too disorganised, such as no commonly accepted legal framework for the election or the fact that the electoral commission has not been able to decide which candidates qualify.

In this regard, candidates have been disqualified and then readmitted. For instance, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of Libya’s overthrown dictator, was ineligible to run in the country’s planned presidential election according to Libya’s election commission. Yet a court in Sebha overturned the electoral commission’s decision to nullify Saif al-Islam’s candidacy for December polls, adding further confusion and also illustrating a lack of clarity over the role of the judiciary in settling disputes over candidate eligibility.

It is imperative to note that since 2011, Libya has experienced one of the most challenging revolutionary transformations of all the Arab states. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Libya witnessed what was effectively the complete destruction of national institutions and government administration in the wake of Gaddafi’s removal. Forty-two years of the Gaddafi regime left Libya with minimal improvement in virtually every sector.

With his death and the dismantling of his regime, the Libyan state collapsed, leaving the country in utter chaos. The total collapse of the state institutions left Libya in a position where there is no starting point or recent example for the new constitution.

In the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, Libya’s constitution-making process did not take place along normal or peaceful conditions, but rather amidst rising political tensions and military conflict. In 2014, a constitution-formation process was established and the resulting draft constitution was issued in 2017. The reasons for this failure are various, consisting of both domestic and external challenges faced by the constitution-making body, but also a constant division between the different partners on several arrangements of the final draft constitution.

The delay in the constitutional process left Libyan institutions with little legitimacy and also has created further division among rival groups. Thus, resolving the constitutional and legal basis for the elections is critical. Despite elections being vital to stability, but poorly timed elections will surely have negative effects on the consolidation of both reconciliation and stability.

The derailment of the UN-backed process could risk descending Libya back into conflict. As some political figures like Aguila Saleh, Speaker of the House of Representatives (HoR) and an ally of Khalifa Haftar, could take advantage of the current situation and try to refuse the legitimacy of the current UN-backed Government of National Unity (GNU) and form a new parallel government in the east.

Due to this concern, recently, some countries, including the UK, stated that as per the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF)’s roadmap and the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) the UK continues to recognise the GNU as the authority tasked with leading Libya to elections and does not endorse the establishment of parallel governments or institutions.

The country’s principal issues about the election law and security difficulties have not been tackled and are unlikely to be resolved in one month. Clearly, these elections are overdue. Many Libyans believe that those in positions of political power have a very limited mandate.

At the same time, as it stands today, the country’s political and security landscape is not currently conducive to holding the elections.

Libya still needs to make considerable progress on several key issues, such as the reunification of institutions, consensus on the constitution, economic reform, security sector reform and reconciliation.

Thus, it might be prudent to consider a longer-term strategy of strengthening facilitating conditions before insisting on elections in the coming months.

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

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