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Why were the Libyan elections postponed and what’s next?
Libyan elections postponed
Yesterday, the High National Elections Commission announced that despite being technically prepared, it was unable to meet the 24 December date set by the political roadmap for national elections.
Citing inadequacies in electoral legislation and challenges and appeals related to candidates’ eligibility, the Commission requested that the House of Representatives set, within a 30-day period, another date for the first round of the Presidential election.
They also asked that the necessary measures be taken to address the difficulties facing the completion of the electoral process.
“The United Nations takes note of the Commission’s recommendation to the House of Representatives and welcomes its commitment to the ongoing electoral process and to continuing the review of the applications of the candidates for parliamentary elections”, said Ms. Williams.
The Special Adviser maintained that she is ready through mediation and the UN’s good offices, to work with the concerned Libyan institutions and interlocuters to address challenges.
She called upon those concerned to honour and support the will of the 2.8 million Libyans who have registered to vote.
The current challenges in the electoral process “should in no way be instrumentalized to undermine the stability and progress which has been achieved in Libya over the past 15 months”, she stressed, strongly urging the relevant actors to focus on the electoral process and on creating the political and security conditions needed to hold “inclusive, free, fair, peaceful and credible elections, whose outcome will be accepted by all parties”.
Secretary-General António Guterres issued a statement through his Deputy Spokesperson, Farhan Haq, taking note of the announcement.
“It is imperative that the will of the people is respected. Presidential and parliamentary elections must take place in Libya in the appropriate conditions to peacefully end the political transition and transfer power to democratically elected institutions”, he said.
The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and the United States have urged war-torn Libya to set a new date for delayed presidential election quickly.
“We call on the relevant Libyan authorities to respect the aspirations of the Libyan people for prompt elections by swiftly determining a final date for the polling and issuing the final list of presidential candidates without delay,” a joint statement from the five nations said on Friday.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has regretted that presidential and parliamentary elections were not held as scheduled on December 24.
The Secretary-General of the GCC, Nayef Al-Hajraf, said that the December 24 elections were a constitutional entitlement and an international demand to pave the way towards a better future for the Libyan people, their security and stability.
Al-Hajraf called on all Libyan parties to give priority to national interests, stressing the GCC keenness to achieve security, stability and development in Libya, to guarantee its sovereignty, independence and to stop interfering in its internal affairs.
The authorities overseeing Libya’s first presidential election said earlier this week holding it on Friday as scheduled would be “impossible”.
The vote was intended to mark a fresh start for the oil-rich North African country, a year after a landmark ceasefire and more than 10 years after its 2011 revolt that overthrew and killed longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Libyans voiced anger at the delay.
In Benghazi, Wahbi Tarkhan, 81, said he and his wife had both registered for the election and were disappointed by the collapse of the process.
“We were eagerly waiting for this day in our minds,” he said.
UN special adviser Stephanie Williams said on Thursday that during meetings across Libya she had consistently heard people voicing a desire for elections.
“I call upon the concerned institutions to honour and support the will of the 2.8 million Libyans who registered to vote,” she said.
Any fresh effort to resume the electoral process will have to weigh the dangers inherent in a delay against the risks of again attempting an election without consensus on the rules.
What was behind the move?
Speculation of a delay had been mounting for weeks. There were bitter disputes over the vote’s legal basis, the powers of the winner and the candidacies of several deeply divisive figures.
On Wednesday, the chairman of the parliamentary committee overseeing the vote wrote to the assembly’s speaker saying that “after consulting the technical, judicial and security reports, we inform you of the impossibility of holding the elections on the date of December 24, 2021”.
The vote has faced many obstacles, including controversial presidential hopefuls, disputes over laws governing the elections, occasional infighting among armed groups, and the long-running rift between the country’s east and west.
The parliament, based in the the eastern city of Tobruk, convened to decide on a proposal by Libya’s election commission to hold the vote on Jan. 24. Under the proposal, the presidential election would be followed by parliamentary elections a month later, on Feb. 15.
Abdullah Bliheg, spokesman for the legislature, said lawmakers would discuss the election commission’s efforts to hold the vote. Lawmakers also deliberated a parliament report on the challenges that forced the vote postponement.
The legislative committee tasked with monitoring the electoral process recommended rewriting the constitution in coordination with the Tripoli-based Supreme Council of State. It suggested drawing a “practical roadmap” for elections without setting specific dates, according to the committee’s report released to lawmakers Monday.
Libya’s nationwide elections have for a year been the lynchpin of U.N.-mediated efforts to bring peace to the oil-rich North African nation.
Other key obstacles on the road to balloting are a long-running rift between the country’s east and west and the presence of thousands of foreign fighters and troops supporting either side.
The legislative committee, which declared last week that holding the vote on Dec. 24 would be impossible, also called for restructuring the executive authority to “achieve stability requirements,” which it said the current government failed to do. It did not elaborate.
The divided political class that emerged in the wake of the 2011 NATO-backed uprising against longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi could not agree on the rules overseeing the election.
Furthermore, they failed to reach a consensus on what powers a new president or parliament would have and who could run in the vote.
Parliament speaker Aguila Saleh, who is a presidential candidate, issued a law setting a first round of the presidential election for December 24, followed by a runoff vote – if needed – and parliamentary polls.
Putting the presidential vote first meant the election would come down to a winner-take-all contest between candidates from virulently opposing factions.
Other political institutions rejected the law, accusing Saleh of passing the law without any proper parliamentary process.
However, Saleh’s law formed the basis of the electoral process and disputes over it grew even more as a number of divisive candidates entered the contest.
Some 98 candidates registered for the presidential race – including some who were seen as unacceptable by many in the country, including powerful armed factions.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of former leader Muammar Gaddafi, registered despite a 2015 conviction in absentia by a court in the capital, Tripoli, of war crimes during the rebellion that overthrew his father 10 years ago.
Khalifa Haftar, a renegade military commander whose eastern-based forces waged a destructive 14-month offensive on Tripoli that ended last year, is rejected as a possible president by various armed factions and many people in western Libya.
Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, the interim prime minister, had promised not to stand for election as a condition to taking on a caretaker role earlier this year. Other candidates say his presence on the ballot is unfair. For him to be eligible, Dbeibah would have needed to have suspended himself from governmental duties at least three months before the polling date, which he did not do.
Without clear agreement on the rules, let alone on who would enforce them or adjudicate disputes, the electoral commission, the parliament’s election committee and the fragmented judiciary were unable to agree on a final list of eligible candidates.
In addition to this, most of Libya is controlled by armed forces that back rival candidates. Without extensive independent monitoring, there would likely be claims of fraud or voter intimidation.
Signs of such tensions had already started to appear as the election approached, as a few days ahead of elections saw the massive military mobilisation of Haftar’s forces around Sabha, an oasis city in southwestern Libya, and around the capital, Tripoli.
The electoral commission has proposed a one-month delay but the parliament may seek a longer one. Negotiations are continuing among the candidates, political institutions and foreign powers.
On Thursday, the parliament ordered the formation of a committee to create a roadmap and submit their proposal within one week.
A short delay may not be enough to resolve the arguments that derailed Friday’s vote. However, fixing those problems could require more time, raising questions about whether the interim government could stay in place until a new election is held.
The future of Dbeibah and his government during the coming period has rapidly become one of the main topics of dispute among rival camps.
According to Jalel Harchaoui, a senior fellow at Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime and a Libya expert, Bashagha’s meeting with Haftar was a cynical ploy to stay politically relevant.
“He praises Haftar because Haftar exists,” Harchaoui tells TRT World. Jalel Harchaoui thinks the country is at risk of partition.
On the other hand, Abdulkader Assad, the chief editor of The Libya Observer and Libya Al Ahrar English, tells TRT World that “Haftar and his allies will bring back the legitimacy card and say the Government of National Unity is no longer in position to rule Libya beyond December 24.”
“To do this, Haftar is now working on the support of not only the House of Representatives (HoR) Speaker Aguila Saleh but also on west-based political parties that oppose Abdulhamid Dbeibah, such as Fathi Bashagha and Ahmed Maiteg. Haftar is also relying on the hate for Saif al Islam Gaddafi’s card, which is bringing a lot of Haftar’s enemies to his side in what they believe would help push Saif out of the race, and to some extent push Dbeibah out as well.”
Commenting on the UN’s potential role in Libya’s future, Jalel Harchaoui says Stephanie Williams, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres’ special adviser on Libya, “will have to choose what will happen next.”
If the peace process falls apart there is a risk that eastern factions could again form a breakaway government at war with Dbeibah’s administration in the capital, Tripoli. However, analysts think that is unlikely for now.
The more immediate risk is that a political crisis could add fuel to local disputes between rival armed groups that have mobilised in western Libya in recent weeks, leading to a new round of fighting inside the capital.
Stopping a civil war and find a crucial solution for it is a complex process, especially since there is kind of military balance between the conflicted sides and the ability of these sides for gathering and receiving support from the foreign sponsors.
The continued historical disputes amid cities and regions in Libya, rights of minors and local conflicts, can be solved only by political convention emerges from a transparent dialogue, but this is no easy task of course.