On Wednesday, Libya’s interim government announced that it had finalized an election law to govern the choosing of a new 200-member National Assembly. The election, to be held prior to June 23, will be Libya’s first in more than four decades. In addition to managing the country’s affairs over the next year, the National Assembly will also be responsible for drafting the country’s new constitution.
Over the past few months, the National Transitional Council (NTC) floated earlier drafts of the law; in response to input from Libyans (much of it collected through social media), the NTC made some important changes, including:
- Allowing Libyans holding dual-nationality to run for office; a first draft of the law had required that dual nationals give up their other citizenship before running for office.
- Making room for political parties. Under Qaddafi, parties had been banned. Without explicit approval of parties, many feared that the election would be hijacked by tribal leaders and wealthy individuals.
- Ensuring seats for women by requiring parties to field lists that alternate between men and women; a first draft had allocated 10 percent of the seats to women through a quota, which was then discarded amidst controversy. This final version could result in a higher number of seats for women (20 percent) since 80 seats are allocated to parties and women presumably could get half of them. However, if there are many small parties which end up with only one seat, the share for women could be lower. But by using affirmative action through the party list system rather than a direct quota, the NTC clearly hopes to dampen criticism (and there was a lot) from those against women’s role in government.
- Paring down restrictions on who can run for office and who cannot. An earlier version had twenty points detailing candidate qualifications; the final version has only six. The restrictions disqualifying former Qaddafi supporters, however, remain.
Consistent across all the versions of the election law is the great detail spelling out strict limits on campaigning, including restrictions on foreign financing, and anything that can be construed as stirring up sectarian differences. It specifically forbids inciting “tribal prejudices.” Officials of the NTC are painfully aware that elections could exacerbate existing divisions, along the lines of what happened in Iraq. The fact that there are multiple, well-armed militias, acting with impunity, is the biggest threat to Libya’s fragile transition. The militias have dug in around the country and give no indication of budging. Human Rights Watch has documented many incidences of torture, including the recent murder of Dr. Omar Brebesh, a Libyan diplomat who had served as ambassador to France in 2008. Brebesh was found dead just a day after being detained by a Tripoli-based militia and photos of his corpse indicate he was tortured.
A recent article by the New York Times describes Libya as a country descending into chaos, beset by vigilantism, murderous record-settling, and a growing problem of looting. Whether the upcoming election can take place peacefully, and whether the new government will be able to assert any better control over the country, remains to be seen. Officials hope the election will play a stabilizing role by conferring legitimacy on a new government, enabling it to move beyond crisis management, and begin to deal with the business of desperately needed reconstruction. The interactive process that the NTC followed to finalize its election law, and the fact that this law is a significant improvement over earlier versions, are positive signs in an otherwise bleak political picture.
Thanks to my research associate, Thalia Beaty, for providing the Arabic translations.