Libya's electoral commission has recommended postponing the highly anticipated December 24 presidential elections until January 24, 2022.
In a statement on its Facebook page, the High National Elections Commission (HNEC) urged the Libyan Parliament to take the appropriate measures to defuse the current hostile political environment in the country and pave the way towards stability.
Earlier on Wednesday, a parliamentary committee said it was “impossible” to hold the elections as scheduled.
Many had hoped the vote would mark the end of a long-running civil conflict that has widened political divisions and led to a proliferation of armed militias, an economic crisis and human rights abuses.
Al Hadi Al Sagheir, who heads the parliamentary committee, sent the letter after “reviewing technical, security and judicial reports".
Previous expectations that the vote would be postponed were based on growing security concerns amid a worsening stand-off between armed groups in Tripoli.
The UN estimates say more than 20,000 mercenaries and foreign fighters are still in Libya.
Libya plunged into chaos after a Nato-backed uprising 10 years ago toppled long-time dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
The country then split into rival governments — one in the east, backed by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, and an administration based in Tripoli.
Days before the polls were set to open, a final candidate list still had not been made public by the election commission, causing further suspicion among Libyan politicians, civilians and the international community that the vote would be pushed back.
A disagreement about the final list of candidates is one of the main reasons for the delay.
A total of 98 hopefuls have registered for candidacy, including a number of controversial candidates.
Qaddafi's son, Saif Al Islam Qaddafi, currently wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes, Field Marshal Haftar as well as interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, accused by the UN of political bribery, are all planning to run.
Former interior minister Fathi Bashagha and Aref Ali Nayed, a former ambassador to the UAE who leads the liberal Ihya Libya party, are also running.
The UN's newly appointed Special Adviser on Libya Stephanie Williams, a former US diplomat, met Mr Dbeibah and commission head Imad Al Sayeh a day after taking on her post in a bid to keep the elections on track.
However, scrutiny over Libya's electoral infrastructure has attracted criticism worldwide.
“The conditions of free, credible, democratic, consensual elections, an important link for the return of peace and stability in Libya, have not yet been met,” said UN Security Council President Abdou Abarry this month.
There is also a fear that the country will encounter more violence if the winning candidate is rejected and one or more of the losing parties rallies armed groups to challenge the outcome.
“The problem is the outcome of the election will be challenged by some parties and this will lead to violence. So, the UN mission and international community is trying to generate a new political agreement to make sure the elections can happen without a major uptick of violence,” said Elie Abouaoun, director of the US Institute of Peace's Middle East and North Africa programmes.
Some Libyans have expressed their dismay at the choice of candidates.
“Every single faction in Libya has an issue with one of these three candidates,” Claudia Gazzini, a Libya expert at the International Crisis Group think tank, told AFP in reference to the interim prime minister, Field Marshal Haftar and Mr Qaddafi.
“So, they tried to stop these candidates from running using legal means, but failing that, there seems to have been an informal agreement between some factions not to let the elections go forward.”
Collapse of elections threatens renewed conflict
With armed groups mobilising in Tripoli and other western areas, the collapse of the electoral process risks aggravating local disputes and triggering a new round of fighting.
Renewed conflict could also lead to more frequent or extensive shutdowns in oil output by armed groups, hitting state finances. A group this week closed down three major fields.
US ambassador to Libya Richard Norland on Wednesday “urged calm and encouraged steps that can continue to de-escalate the tense security situation".
In a statement, the embassy called for “work towards elections” to be a priority among authorities.
Meanwhile, the French government also expressed support for the democratic process, saying that the country is “committed to the smooth running of the electoral process until its end".
Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said the ballot was of “crucial importance” and vowed to work in tight collaboration with the UN to ensure it takes place.
“If elections are postponed without any kind of path forward, then anxieties will be high,” said Amanda Kadlec, a former member of the UN panel of experts on Libya.
“I could totally envision there being a breakout of conflict at local levels that could erupt and cascade into other parts of the country or within each region,” she told AFP.