Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Libya’s New Election Law: Part III

by Isobel Coleman
February 10, 2012

Residents protest against the presence of weapons inside the city of Tripoli in December 2011 (Ismail Zetouni/Courtesy Reuters).


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.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Don Zarling

    Ms Coleman,
    If democratization is your expertise you should well be able to see that mob rule is/has taken effect in Libya. Remember that Libya is an invention of the UN post WWII. Italy wanted the Libyan region as part of its empire. The leader Omar Muktar fought for independence from the Italians. The north African region was composed of Tripolitania, Cyraenaica and Fezzan. Many tribes were within these regions and are existent today. The Libyan Jamahiriyya government met as committees formed from these tribes and villages and cities. The committees met at Congresses. The secular Jamahiriyya worked slowly but provided the highest standard of living in Africa. It is hard to know if the NATO overthrow of the Libyan state was popular. It would be unreasonable to think that the US president should be ousted by NATO when his popularity falls below 50% or former regimes (the Monarchy of Idris in Libya’s case) have an unsettled grudge. This adventure, whether called nation building or democratization, may have ill effects over all of the ME and Africa. It also has provided opportunities for racial genocide (Tawergha) of many black Libyans. The one billion dollars spent by the US on the Libyan War may well have been better utilized for true humanitarian purposes in the Sahel to alleviate starvation.

  • Posted by Peter Duveen

    “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.” This policy could be construed as a means by which outside forces can exert control over Libya’s internal affairs.

    “The restrictions disqualifying former Qaddafi supporters, however, remain.” It may well have been that the NTC regime represented an unpopular faction forced on Libyans through NATO’s armed intervention. We shall only know for sure if Qaddafi supporters are allowed to run for office.

    “The militias have dug in around the country and give no indication of budging.” It is apparent that Libyans have come to understand that only force can ensure that some semblance of rights and order are maintained, and that an electoral process susceptible to outside manipulation carries with it little credibility, utlility or popular appeal.

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