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Libya’s hopeful elections: wishful thinking writ large


Libya’s hopeful elections: wishful thinking writ large

Libyan elections


Ghassan Salme, the sixth UN envoy to Libya, has announced his expectation that a national conference in early 2019 will act as a precursor to general elections in Tripoli. Given the compounding stresses on the electoral system, this seems unlikely to eventuate.


– Oil-rich Libya has been in a state of turmoil with rebel groups running rampant since the NATO-assisted killing of 42-year standing dictator, Muammar Qaddafi
– Attempts at organising elections have been hindered by the two major political entities, the internationally recognised Government of National Accord in Tripoli and the Tobruk-based House of Representative (HOR)
– Although 80% of Libyans desire free and open elections, the lack of rigorous electoral mechanisms or institutions, entrenched corruption, the absence of a respected constitution, and widespread violence makes it unlikely that the elections will ensue in early 2019


The NATO-assisted killing of Muammar Qaddafi, a 42-year standing dictator who used the national army to crush dissidents, left the country in chaotic shambles. Systemic corruption, indefinite detention of civilians, and widespread killings are now commonplace. The Tripoli-based and UN-recognised General National Congress — which includes Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj — and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) in the country’s east are the two competing power foci in Libya, though many smaller factional parties and armed militia groups smatter the political map. Khalifa Hafter, a self-described anti-Islamist general in command of the self-styled Libyan National Army, is also a hugely popular figure in the political landscape, with significant influence over the HoR — some have described his consent as essential for any legislation to pass. The HoR won a majority of votes in a 2014 election, but the result was later invalidated by Libya’s Supreme Court, which cited a violation of Libya’s provisional constitution. Since then, the country has been split asunder.

Libya’s political waters are further muddied by competition between foreign governments, particularly France and Italy. Although both operate within the EU framework for Libya, they often undermine each other. Political influence and oil are the two major driving forces behind the competition; Libya produced 926,000 barrels of crude oil a day as of August 2018. The intra-European rivalry was typified in the organisation of general elections in December — now disbanded — during discussions in Paris in May 2018. Some suggest that the organisation of election dates in such a narrow timeline was intended to favour Haftar, France’s unapologetic preferred candidate for power.

Analysts have lauded the recently hosted Palermo Conference, convened between key Libyan political figures to discuss a timeline for elections, as a move to re-establish Italian diplomatic responsibility for Libya. Although it was described as a “resounding flop”, as hopeful attendees President Trump and President Putin did not make an appearance, al-Sarraj and Haftar were present and discussed matters in private.


The shaky foundations undergirding Libya’s political system are easily rattled by corrupt or self-serving political parties and armed militia groups jostling to better their position seem likely to frustrate efforts at an election in early 2019. Although elections cannot be stalled indefinitely, the vague roadmap announced by Salme seems improbable.


Three Soviet-era T-55 tanks abandoned in the Sahara at Bir Kora are reminders of a Libyan invention in Chad's civil wars which ended badly for Libya in 1987. / Libyan elections
Photo: David Stanley/Flickr

The lack of established legal processes for elections, the systemic corruption that plagues the Libyan political system, Salme’s vaguely worded expectations, and the absence of a respected national constitution indicate that elections in early 2019 are unlikely to happen. An incontestable legal roadmap to elections, delineating the limits, responsibilities, and manner of parties throughout an election is a missing crucial element of Libya’s electoral capacity. Without it, Libya’s political players can obstruct the electoral process.

The well-reported systemic bribery and favouritism is a reminder of the presence of those corrupt officials who are happy to draw out their time in power and whose damage seeps into Libyan society as a whole. Salme’s non-specific schedule of “the following months” after a non-dated national conference is also likely to be exploited by any party that wishes to stall elections in favour of benefitting from the status quo.

Libya’s lack of a coherent and agreed upon constitution is another stumbling block that precludes elections that would be accepted by all major parties. Although the Constitutional Drafting Assembly (CDA) passed a constitution in July 2013, the vote barely scraped the house’s 2/3 rule. Opponents to the vote later proclaimed this as evidence of a divided house and successfully appealed for the constitution to be invalidated by an administrative court in al-Bayda, an eastern-based city.

Respected elections, whereby the losers accept an unsuccessful verdict are unlikely if a basic constitution, containing legislature that bolsters the Libyan state, cannot be agreed upon. Not only does the lack of a national constitution make the prospect of an election difficult from a logistical perspective, but also it allows for parties to selectively accept elections as they see fit and subjects the Libyan populace to elections with no clear outline of powers and responsibilities.

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Photo: Third South Summit


Given the widespread, systemic, and largely indiscriminate violence, it is an unfortunate reality that violence is to be expected before and during Libya’s eventual elections. In light of the 2014 elections, state authorities are unlikely capable of facilitating a safe voting environment. The abysmal 18% turnout rate and multiple instances of shootings in 2014 were not encouraging signs for prospective voters.

Capacity has not improved in the intervening years. An Islamic State suicide attack that killed twelve at Libya’s High National Election Commission in May suggests state forces are still unable to provide security to those wishing to vote. Libya has no shortage of militia groups willing to extend their presence through violent means, and they are only likely to support elections insofar as it will benefit their group. Local and regional leaders, as well as the international community, can work to integrate them into the state apparatus, but this is a burdensome task and could very well discourage regions or swathes of Libyans from supporting or participating in elections.


/ Libyan elections

For the 80% of Libyans who desire open and fair elections, the unbinding nature of Salme’s vaguely worded expectations and the lack of enthusiasm by the major political players considerably dims the likelihood of elections transpiring in the early months of 2019. Salme has expressly disavowed the two central political nodes for their stalling tactics and general disinterest in reconciling differences for their own “narrow interests”. International conferences and events in the future, presumably hosted by European countries like France and Italy, hold some potential to address some of the rifts in political relations and should not be struck out entirely. After all, even the supposed “resounding flop” that was the Palermo Conference saw Hafter agree to a bilateral meeting with al-Sarraj. Although this conference did not lead to any tangible shift in direction between the two power hubs, the confidence-building benefits of such functions should not be entirely ruled out.

The Libyan people need an election to usher in an internally legitimate government but the process itself is fraught with risk. Although there is demand from the populace, that is unlikely to overcome the large structural issues that legitimate and accepted elections will need to surmount.

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