Libya set to hold first presidential poll as doubts mount over final candidate list

Uncertainty has led to fears of a new civil war

A Libyan with his voter card inside a Tripoli polling station in November 2021. Reuters
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Libya is expected to hold its first presidential election late next week but the lack of a final list of candidates and bitter political divisions have cast doubts on the event.

Polling, which is set for December 24, was intended to mark a transition towards peace. However, there are now concerns it could reignite civil war, AFP reported.

The “elections may do more harm than good in Libya, given the deep societal and political fault lines”, said Jamal Benomar, a former UN under-secretary general.

“The necessary conditions for free and fair elections are not available, and Libyans are too divided to accept or agree on the results.”

The election, part of a UN-led peace process, comes after a year of relative calm following an October 2020 ceasefire between eastern and western camps.

A transitional administration took office in March to lead the oil-rich North African country to the polls.

But despite high hopes for peace, the UN has struggled to overcome deep, complex divisions left by a decade of fighting and foreign intervention since the 2011 Nato-backed uprising that toppled and killed Muammar Qaddafi.

Mr Benomar, who is chairman of the International Centre for Dialogue Initiatives think tank, issued a warning that fragmented state institutions and a lack of “unified or legitimate” security forces were destabilising the country.

As an array of armed groups hold sway on the ground, few believe that voters will be able to freely cast their ballots.

About 2.5 million voter registration cards have been collected but aside from posters urging other Libyans to do likewise, there are few signs in the seaside capital of Tripoli that a ballot is approaching.

With the election authority yet to publish a final list of candidates, campaigning has not officially begun, although some hopefuls are promoting themselves on social media.

The election comes after months of bitter disputes over their legal basis and who may stand, with several divisive figures in the running.

Among the most controversial is Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army, who controls much of eastern and southern Libya.

He is despised in the country's west after his year-long and ultimately failed assault on Tripoli between 2019 and 2020.

His candidacy was made possible by a contentious electoral law signed off by his ally, parliamentary speaker Aguila Saleh, in a process rivals say bypassed due process.

But for some, his rival Saif Al Islam Qaddafi's candidacy is equally problematic. The son of the toppled dictator who ruled Libya with an iron fist for four decades, Mr Qaddafi is accused by many – including International Criminal Court prosecutors – of war crimes.

Anas El Gomati, director of Libyan think tank the Sadeq Institute, said that “elections under these legal and political conditions will almost certainly destabilise Libya".

“An election victory by Saif or Haftar would bring war from those who stood against Qaddafi in 2011 or Haftar's assault on Tripoli in 2019,” he said, according to an AFP report.

Even interim prime minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah, a tycoon who heads the Tripoli-based transitional administration, faces claims that his candidacy is illegitimate.

After months of legal battles, “whoever wins, there is a risk that the losers will undermine the winners and say the election was not constitutionally valid”, said Peter Millett, a former UK ambassador to Libya.

As if these complexities were not enough, the UN's Libya envoy Jan Kubis quit his post a month before the poll.

A diplomat in New York, who asked not to be named, said Mr Kubis's insistence on holding the election on December 24 had caused a “breakdown” in his relationship with Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who doubted conditions were ripe.

Mr Kubis had even recognised the contentious September election law. That was “one of the big criticisms of his tenure”, said Amanda Kadlec, a former member of the UN Panel of Experts on Libya.

To avoid a vacuum, Mr Guterres appointed US diplomat Stephanie Williams, a former acting director of the UN's Libya mission, as “special adviser".

Parliamentary speaker Mr Saleh had also changed the electoral timetable to delay legislative polls, keeping himself in charge of the eastern-based parliament even if his ally Haftar were to lose the presidential vote, according to Mr El Gomati.

Yet, despite the danger of holding the election, experts said postponing it also carries risks.

If Mr Dbeibah stays in position without a ballot, his eastern rivals could again create their own government to compete with his, Ms Kadlec said.

Mr Millett sees a risk “that Libya is heading for a train crash on December 25, whether elections happen on schedule or not”.

Updated: December 14, 2021, 4:19 AM