Low turnout in Libya’s parliamentary polls amid political turmoil

Just over 25 per cent of the 1.5 million registered voters cast ballots – a sharp contrast to the first parliamentary vote two years ago.
A man shows his ink-stained finger at a polling station during a parliamentary election, in Benghazi June 25, 2014. Libyans voted for a new parliament on Wednesday. Esam Omran Al-Fetori / Reuters
A man shows his ink-stained finger at a polling station during a parliamentary election, in Benghazi June 25, 2014. Libyans voted for a new parliament on Wednesday. Esam Omran Al-Fetori / Reuters

TRIPOLI // Libyans trickled to the polls on Wednesday in elections for a new parliament, hoping to bring some degree of stability to the North African nation, where for three years since the toppling of longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi there has hardly been any central government and violent militias have run out of control.

With just half an to go before polls closed, just 400,000 of the 1.5 million registered voters had cast their ballot, a turnout of less than 27 per cent, the electoral commission said.

The vote is expected to see Islamist politicians, who held a thin majority in the outgoing parliament, lose ground amid widespread public anger over feuding between the Islamists and their opponents that has virtually paralysed the political system. Each side in the rivalry is backed by militias, intertwining the armed groups even more tightly into political disputes.

The new parliament could be a step toward forming a more stable government with lawmakers’ backing, paving the way for the writing of the first post-Qaddafi constitution within 18 months and the election of a president. Still, a new government will face the same challenge of pacifying militias – particularly if there is a backlash from armed groups over the results.

The chaos in this oil-rich country of nearly 6 million people since the death of Qaddafi in October 2011 has been breathtaking in its complexity.

The army and police were shattered during the 2011 civil war and have never recovered. Rebel brigades turned into armed militias, mushroomed in number and weaponry, and filled the void left by security forces, battling each other. Over the past years, militias have briefly kidnapped a prime minister and besieged parliament and government buildings. Eastern militias have occupied oil facilities for months, even trying to sell oil on their own and nearly completely shutting down exports of the resource Libyans counted on to rebuild their country.

Al Qaeda-inspired extremists act with near impunity, particularly in the east, where the main city Benghazi sees frequent killings of police, soldiers, moderate clerics and secular activists.

On Wednesday, at least three soldiers deployed to provide polling day security in Benghazi were killed in what security officials said was an attack on their convoy by Islamist militia.

For the past few months, a renegade general, Khalifa Haftar, has waged his own offensive vowing to wipe out militants and has garnered the backing of some militias and army units and many of anti-Islamist politicians.

On the political front, Islamists came to hold narrow control over the parliament formed in the 2012 elections, the first national vote since Qaddafi’s removal. They eventually forced out the first democratically chosen prime minister, western-backed Ali Zeidan. The parliament’s mandate expired in February, but Islamists kept the body in place for months afterward.

Amid the turmoil and violence, turnout was thin at the polls Wednesday, a sharp contrast to the 2012 election, when Libyans enthusiastically formed long lines at polling centres from early in the morning, hoping for democracy after 42 years of Mr Qaddafi’s one-man iron grip.

Islamists are expected to see a setback in the vote. Islamists did not win a single seat in elections earlier this year that chose a 60-member constituent assembly to write the first post-Qaddafi constitution.

But it is unclear who would emerge as the winner. Unlike the previous election, political parties are barred from the race. All candidates must run as independents, a step aimed at reducing factionalism in the next legislature.

Some figures known to be affiliated to political groupings are running, including Hamouda Salaya, a close associate of Mahmoud Jibril, who served as the rebellion’s appointed prime minister during the civil war.

There are few prominent political figures to rally around. Many longtime opposition figures who returned from exile after the war were barred from politics by a draconian law passed by parliament last year excluding anyone who ever held positions in Qaddafi’s regime. That included Mr Jibril, who was once a close associate of Qaddafi’s son, Seif Al Islam. Mr Jibril’s Alliance of National Forces won the largest single party bloc in the outgoing parliament, but he disbanded the group to protest Islamists’ actions in parliament.

Interim prime minister Mr Al Thinni told Libyans after casting his ballot to “choose the right man” for parliament. “Avoid the use of force or arms, and let dialogue be the way to reach understanding,” he said.

First deputy parliament head Ezz Eddin Al Awami asked Libyans to forget about the past at least for today and only focus on “calling on people to head to the polls.”

* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse

Published: June 25, 2014 04:00 AM

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