First Post-Conflict Elections in Libya and the Underlying Issues

In few months Libya will witness the first elections in almost 60 years to elect the National Assembly that will replace the NTC in running the country, and these elections are organized in a country which has experienced an armed conflict following a peaceful popular uprising that resulted in the overthrow of Gaddafi’s brutal regime. In Libya, elections are seen as the last step in a transition and peace-building process, and are meant to mark the return of a “legitimate” authority, sanctioned by the ballot. They are considered a necessary step without which the transition from war to peace would not be possible, a necessary ingredient on the road to stability. The elections will be organized under the supervision of the international community, especially as the latter has been involved in the toppling of Gaddafi’s regime and bringing hostilities to an end.
Elections in post-conflict Libya are quite unlike other elections that we know about. First of all, they are organized under the supervision of the international community, and they are simultaneously conducted alongside other initiatives such as disarmament or measures taken to ensure the restoration of security and rule of law. They sometimes make little use of internal mobilization and organization capacities, which means that these processes can be relatively artificial. Moreover, they are often seen as an end, when in fact they only constitute to a mere step toward transition to democracy and they alone cannot ensure that the authorities to emerge from the elections will exercise their mandate democratically with many pressing and underlying issues remaining unresolved such as, armed militias, transitional justice and national reconciliation etc. Moreover, as Libya has just emerged from an armed conflict, they involve a number of risks, since they can polarize even more societies that have already been divided by a conflict. Indeed, what distinguishes the electoral act is participation in a collective reflection which can turn into confrontation, especially with the recent calls for autonomy of eastern Libya that have caused huge controversial debate in the country about the issue. Such events might have awakened historical fissures in the society and might be of huge concern when conducting the elections.
Thus, elections should not be considered the magical formula which will solve all the ills of a country emerging from a conflict (and the people of Libya should be informed and educated about this). But why, then, is this relatively risk-laden step forward so crucial, and why does it often mobilize significant contributions from all concerned parties and players? Elections in countries emerging from conflicts are seen by the international community as a necessary condition to rebuild a state. This task is, at bottom, more achievable and more manageable than that, for instance, of rebuilding the administration or an army or of fighting corruption. Focusing mainly on the organization of elections by the NTC and the government means setting a reachable technical objective, which can signal the beginning of the crisis-ridden redevelopment in Libya. Moreover, these elections often constitute the only option on which factions of the Libyan society agree. It often happens that, despite the risks involved in such a polarizing process and diplomats, political stakeholders and armed groups don’t have another possibility but that one to definitely put an end to the chaos and have a better representative body to run the country.
The “democracy kit” in Libya (including multiparty system, new Constitution, free media, free and fair elections), and multilateral organizations and embassies, and of which elections constitute one of the indispensable elements. In Libya throughout the long exercise of restoring civil and military peace, key players have to keep to the same plan: a transition government must lead to a legitimate government stemming from free and democratic elections, often organized before the guns have fallen silent and armed groups are dismantled.
These post-conflict elections could be crowned with success, but could also lead to failure. If elections go well, the country can continue on the road to democracy and peace. But if they don’t, democracy can be undermined and the country can descend into conflict or a prolonged transitional period. Thus, elections can contribute to (re)establishing the rule of law, just as they can exacerbate tensions or revive violence, often along historical fissures and foreign exploitation. There are very crucial areas to look out for and address before, during and after the upcoming elections in Libya:
Firstly, is the importance given by the international community to elections that would play a highly symbolic part in the democratic transition process in Libya. Nevertheless, these polls were not a panacea as they are being held in a country like Libya in which democratic dialogue, individual security and often political governance is showing serious shortcomings. They require massive investments, though they could not, simply through the electoral principle alone, provide solutions to the problems which triggered the conflicts or resulted from them. It is probable that elections focused the attention and efforts of the NTC and the government because they constituted a “technical” objective which was measurable, programmable and thus easier to reach.
Secondly, the hope these polls generate in populations which, after much suffering, probably expect more from these elections than they could deliver: security and stability, development and well-being. The high turnout, in the first post-conflict elections in Libya, will reveal the populations’ level of belief in them. Exercising their right to vote often requires much effort, as citizens have to travel long distances and wait hours in front of a polling station in order to make their voice heard. This energy can, in the future, turn into mass lethargy if the polls are no longer considered credible or if the new elected government doesn’t fulfill all the populations’ wide expectations.
Thirdly, the ongoing insecurity in some parts of Libya is threatening stability and unity of the country. These elections aim to install a dynamic to reinforce peace, though insecurity and armed militias’ culture continues. Destabilizing the electoral process could even become an objective of the armed factions in Libya. The perspective of elections can fuel conflicts and increase instability, though they are often presented as the culmination of the peace process.
Fourthly, one must underline the logistical challenge posed by the organization of elections in Libya, as the NTC is still struggling to draw up the voting districts map and satisfy all parties in the country, while the formal registration process for elections has not started yet with only three months left. Census data in Libya unreliable or unavailable, transport is difficult, and electricity all but ubiquitous. Not only did the Gaddafi regime block development, but also led to the deterioration of the infrastructure, thus making the task of those organizing the elections even more complicated. When logistical challenges combine with political manipulations, it can be difficult to determine which dysfunctions are tied to technical problems, fraud or informal mechanisms retrenching freedom.
Such is thus the context of these electoral processes, in which the media will need to play a central part in informing the citizens about all the underlying issues associated with these upcoming elections. Mohamed Eljarh is a UK based Libyan academic researcher and political, social development activist. He is from the city of Tobruk in Eastern Libya. [Email: m.eljarh@yahoo.co.uk ].
Follow me on Twitter: @Eljarh Copyright © 2012 Mohamed Eljarh