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 Upcoming Elections

by Isobel Coleman
May 2, 2012

Men wait to register to vote in Libya's upcoming elections at a registration center set up in a school in Tripoli, May 1, 2012 (Ismail Zitouny/Courtesy Reuters). Men wait to register to vote in Libya's upcoming elections at a registration center set up in a school in Tripoli, May 1, 2012 (Ismail Zitouny/Courtesy Reuters).

Libya’s emergence from years of dictatorship is predictably a rocky one. The country is moving toward its first post-Qaddafi national elections next month, but the process is marked by considerable confusion and deep disagreements. Yesterday, Libyan candidates and voters began registering for June elections for a constituent assembly that will be tasked with writing a new constitution. However, a recent law restricting political parties has sparked some bewilderment. Last week, the NTC banned political parties “based on religion or ethnicity or tribe,” but the implications are not clear. When the law was first announced, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party complained, “We don’t understand this law … it could mean nothing or it could mean that none of us could participate in the election.” It is also unclear how the law affects parties organized around regional issues, a key factor in Libyan politics. Indeed, some groups want to scrap the election law in its entirety, and replace it with a federalist system. Rather than elect leaders based on population in major towns and cities as the current law specifies, proponents of federalism want elections to be based on Libya’s three regions: Tripolitania (which includes Tripoli, the political capital); Fezzan in the southwest; and Cyrenaica in the northeast, which includes Benghazi and most of the country’s significant oil reserves. Not surprisingly, the strongest calls for federalism have emanated from the oil-wealthy eastern part of the country. Protestors and politicians around Benghazi say that while they recognize the National Transitional Council (NTC) as their legitimate representative in international affairs, they want to manage their own financial and security matters locally. Western Libyans and the transitional government have denounced federalist demands, characterizing them as divisive and damaging. Conflict between rival groups is erupting under the weak central government and could portend further violence. If Libya cannot figure out how to distribute power and resources between the east and the west, it could face a situation reminiscent of that in Iraq, where resource disparities and regional divisions helped push the country into civil war.

In addition to contentions over structure of government and uncertainty about the upcoming election, Libya faces a particularly challenging combination of factors that will, at best, make its road to democracy an arduous one. Civil society is weak: the country is awash still in weapons, despite efforts by both the NTC and the international community to secure them, and former rebels remain outside of the state’s control, having all but taken over various towns and parts of cities. Libya’s porous borders exacerbate its tenuous security, and mistrust and score settling are widespread. Some 70,000 people remain displaced internally, too frightened to return to their homes. Corruption is also a real problem, with massive fraud bedeviling a compensation scheme for those who fought Qaddafi. According to a poll conducted in the winter by Oxford University researchers, only 15 percent of Libyans said they wanted some form of democracy in the next year, while 42 percent expressed hope that a new strongman would emerge.

Despite all these challenges, I am not betting against Libya at this point. It has managed to restore oil production almost to pre-war levels, providing significant resources to address citizens’ needs and develop the country’s sorely lacking infrastructure. Its population is young and highly literate. Amazingly, it opened schools in the fall, with more than a million students enrolled by January. Many talented and determined émigrés have returned to help rebuild the country. Some question whether the elections should be postponed given all the uncertainty and the failure to disarm militias. While a few months’ delay might be necessary to work out technical issues (assuring sufficient voter registration, for example), I doubt a delay beyond that will make much of a difference either in disarming the militias or in straightening out Libya’s myriad problems. In fact, a longer delay could exacerbate those problems by leaving them to fester under a weak government lacking in legitimacy.

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