THE LIBYAN ELECTIONS: A LITMUS TEST FOR THE COUNTRY’S LONG-TERM STABILITY

As predicted by The Inkerman Group, the Higher National Election Commission (HNEC) officially delayed the Libyan elections for the General National Congress (GNC), moving the date of the polls from the previously scheduled date of 19 June 2012, to 07 July 2012. The reasons for the delay include, among other things, security and logistical concerns, as ballot papers were not expected to be ready by the original date. The latest poll delay, however, is likely to bring further headaches for members of the National Transitional Council (NTC) and Libyan citizens alike. To begin with, even if the election does occur on 07 July 2012, it will take at least a month to have the full count of the vote. On top of this, it will take at least a month for the newly elected officials to take their seats in the parliament. Ramadan is scheduled to start on 20 July 2012, and will continue until 18 August 2012, ultimately this will push back business contracts which were originally projected to be issued in September – October 2012. However, the biggest issue regarding the national elections is the potential for unrest among Libyans themselves.

Growing Impatience

By and large, Libyans are growing impatient with the delays to the polls, which as of 18 June 2012, will see approximately 143 approved political parties and a reported 2,501 vetted individuals vie for positions within the 200-member representative body, which will include 120 constituency seats and 80 list seats. In essence, the national elections may best be described a “litmus test” for Libya’s immediate and long-term stability, and is also expected to serve as a barometer for the country’s ability to transition into a peaceful, and united democracy. The elections, also have wider implications beyond Libya. A steep decline in the country’s security has the potential to deter intergovernmental military alliances, such as NATO, from intervening in other uprisings or civil wars, i.e., Syria. No doubt, these issues have weighed heavily on the mind of officials in the NTC, an interim government which has been a target of most mass demonstrations. This election is of high importance, as once seated, the newly elected assembly members have been given the specific task of drawing up a new constitution. Immediately following the election, the GNC is expected to appoint a new prime minister and cabinet to replace the current NTC. The GNC must also establish a Constituent Authority, and within sixty days, it must create a constitution to replace the August 2011 Constitutional Declaration. Once the constitution is approved by referendum, general elections are slated to be held within six months. But the question remains: which party or individuals will garner the most support and have the biggest influence on the new constitution?

The Parties

The party which is expected to “pack the most punch”, so to speak, is the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood(MB)-backed Justice and Development Party (JDP). In late March 2011, the party announced that it had elected Mohammed Sawan, a hotel manager from Misrata who had been imprisoned for eight years for unknown political reasons, as their leader. JDP leader Sawan made headlines after voicing his disagreements over election law changes which would have forbidden parties which ran on “religious, regional and tribal” grounds from running for office. Although this law was later overturned, the JDP managed to avoid accusations of being overtly religious due to its intentionally vague religious platform, as well as its encouragement of non-Brotherhood member participation. The MB is considered the most organised political movement in Libya, and has established branches in eighteen cities. Most analysts are predicting that the JDP will garner the largest support, particularly after reports indicated that the United States is hedging its bets, so to speak, on this group. Additionally, the JDP has allegedly been backed – financially and otherwise – by oil-rich Qatar, a country which has been criticised for meddling in Libyan affairs.

Another high-profile political party is the Alwatan / Nation Party, led by controversial leader Abdul Hakim Belhadj, which was officially launched on 02 June 2012. Despite indications that Belhadj, the former head of the Tripoli Military Council, would be unable to register in time for the national elections, he achieved his aim in time. Belhadj was once considered Libya’s rising political star. However, his popularity declined particularly after reports on 12 February 2012, indicated that he and his cronies took dozens of rooms and ran up a bill of 3 million LYD (US$2.4 million) over several months in Tripoli’s Radisson Blu Hotel. Additionally, Belhadj has been criticised for his alleged “close relationship” with al Qaeda leaders. Other highly publicised parties include Ahmed Shebani’s Democratic Party of Libya. Shebani, whose father was a government minister under King Idris, has garnered most of his support from European think tanks. His organisation is perhaps arguably far too liberal for many Libyans, as it calls for the complete separation of “mosque and state” as well as for the recognition of Israel and the right of return for all Libyan Jews, who were ousted in 1967 and barred from moving back. Another more “liberal” based party is Mohammed Allagi’s Party of Free Libyans. Allagi, who also served as the country’s justice minister in the Mahmoud Jibril administration in 2011, believes that the country must enact a constitutional state that reflects the aspirations of women, young people, and minority groups, including Berbers.

The Way Ahead

Whichever the “winning” political party will be, one thing is clear: the organisation must be ready to bring an end to the country’s numerous security issues, including weapons proliferation, the increasing threat of inter-tribal conflicts, as well as the rising hostilities between hard-line Islamists or “Salafists” and more moderate Libyans, who make up the majority of the population. Additionally, the NTC must be prepared to step aside and hand over power to the winning parties and political candidates. As indicated previously, the national elections are critical for Libya’s immediate and possibly long-term security. Particular areas of concern are Sirte and Benghazi, although there is a possibility of unrest across the country. Benghazi is a key area given its proximity to the oil-rich Sirte Basin as well as its role as the “ground zero” for the 2011 uprising. Observers have noted with concern the level of discontent among locals over an earlier decision by the NTC which would see the Tripolitania District obtain 102 seats, whilst the Cyrenaica / Barqa District (where Benghazi is located) would be allocated sixty seats. The NTC, which is based in Tripoli, argues that the distribution is fair because the capital is more populated – Tripoli has a reported population of 2,220,000 to Benghazi’s 650,000. Demonstrators in Benghazi have frequently voiced their frustration over the NTC, which some believe does not represent their interests. As such, there have been calls from across the city for a more “federalised” system of government, in which more political power would ultimately be delegated to local leaders. Going forward, the days leading up to and following the elections are considered crucial, particularly as Libyans appear to be growing impatient with the NTC and the constant elections delays. If the NTC fails to step down and make the transition to an elected body, the masses know how to organise a revolution, and as such, they may not hesitate to do so again.

(Image: The Inkerman Group)

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