Libya’s elections in doubt as politics of division lingers on

The vote faces many challenges, including disputes over the laws governing the elections and occasional infighting among armed groups

Local NGO activists gather for a demonstration at Algeria Square in the Libyan capital on December 15 to protest against any possible postponement of the elections scheduled for December 24. AFP

Political turmoil is making crucial elections in Libya that could end years of turmoil, divisions and fighting in just eight days' time appear increasingly unlikely, even though no official postponement has been announced.

With just over a week to go before the December 24 presidential and parliamentary elections, the final list of presidential candidates is yet to be published and armed groups took to the streets of the capital on Thursday in a show of force.

Abu Bakr Marada, a member of Libya's electoral commission, told media on Thursday that it was now "impossible" to hold the elections on time.

But no delay has been announced, even as electoral rules state those running must be given 14 days to campaign.

Many hoped the election would end the past decade of chaos in Libya left after the uprising against longtime autocrat Muammar Qaddafi by bringing in a political leadership with national legitimacy after years of factional division.

Ninety-eight candidates registered to run for president, including controversial figures central to Qaddafi's regime and the fighting that has torn Libya apart in the decade since.

Judges have wrangled over the disqualification of some top fighters, yet appeals have also been successful.

Libya is awash with competing factions and interests.

Even the economy and public finances are fragmented into two entities, with a rivalry between the governor of the central bank, in the west, and his deputy, in the east. Talks between both men to settle old scores are still at an early stage.

December's election and the preceding UN-led peace talks represent a fresh bid to stitch the country together.

Officials said that the official postponement would likely be decided soon.

“In fact, the issue of postponement is subject to a large number of variables, most of which are directly related to the implementation of the electoral process. They may be political, technical or legal variables. But the current House of Representatives will have the final say in the days to come,” said Imad Al Sayeh, head of the High Election Commission.

In February, an interim unity government was chosen to oversee the elections. The UN-backed administration put an end to two rival administrations in the east and the west. But powerful militias that emerged from revolutionary and rebel groups that toppled Qaddafi still retain and wield enormous influence across the country.

Reconciliation talks in Tunis and Geneva have led to the appointment of a three-member presidential council. The new governing line-up followed a ceasefire reached last year.

Abdel Qadir Al Hewili, a senior member at the State Council, an advisory body to the interim government, said the elections cannot be held given the spiralling insecurity and the flawed elections laws that allowed the son of Qaddafi — who was sentenced to death by a Tripoli court in his absence in 2015 for war crimes committed during the failed battle to save his father's 40-year rule from a Nato-backed uprising — to run in the elections.

On Thursday, a military official told AFP that militias had “deployed heavily around sensitive sites in the capital,” after the commander of the Tripoli region was replaced by the Presidential Council.

“The Interior Ministry can simply ask for postponing or cancelling the elections as it can’t guarantee the safety of voters or provide the necessary protection to observers, monitors and election officials. Add to that, the controversial candidacy of Saif Al Islam Qaddafi and others like Gen Khalifa Haftar [of the eastern Libyan National Army] and the incumbent Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah, will give a great, strong argument to anyone who will dispute the results and we will be back to square one” Mr Al Hewili told The National.

Is federalism the answer?

Dozens of MPs and leaders of political parties have called for delaying the elections until next year for the same reasons, but they have also singled out the proliferation of militias that want to set their own conditions and handpick candidates as the main concern.

On Wednesday, the Security Directorate in the south-western city of Sabha accused militias of stealing 11 of its vehicles and arresting several policemen who were sent by the Interior Ministry as security reinforcements before the elections.

UN special advisor Stephanie Williams visited Tripoli on Sunday in a bid to sustain the momentum for elections.  AFP

The elections are still being seen as a key milestone to drag Libya away from the civil war that allowed the emergence of ISIS, the intervention of foreign forces from countries like Russia and Turkey, and the country becoming a trafficking hub for migrants seeking to reach Europe across the Mediterranean.

For this reason, some are against any postponement.

On Wednesday, local activists gathered for a demonstration at Algeria Square outside the Tripoli Municipality in the Libyan capital to protest against any possible postponement of the elections. They carried placards reading: “yes to national reconciliation and get out mercenaries and international powers.”

The UN special adviser on Libya, Stephanie Williams, visited Tripoli on Sunday in a bid to sustain the momentum gained over the past year to hold the elections on time.

The American diplomat was appointed last week as Special Envoy Jan Kubis resigned on November 23 after only 10 months in the job. Some took his departure as a sign of foreboding for Libya's burgeoning democracy.

With the rising political tensions fuelled by tribalism, there have been renewed calls for adopting federalism or even dividing the country into three autonomous regions, as during the colonial era, when the British and French occupied Libya in 1943 and split it into three provinces: Tripolitania in the north-west, Cyrenaica in the east, and Fezzan-Ghadames in the south-west.

But Anas El Gomati, director of the Libyan Sadeq Institute think tank, told The National that would not solve the country’s problems.

“Federalism would not resolve the crux of a crisis between two irreconcilable visions of the future state; those who desire elections with a constitutional restraint on Libya’s president in a country with a legacy for authoritarians and those who reject this in favour of a powerful leader to restructure the state and its military as they see fit,” he said,” he said.

Updated: December 16th 2021, 5:34 PM