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: Part II

by Isobel Coleman
May 31, 2012

Youths walk past an electoral banner showing a woman holding a voting card in Tripoli on May 17, 2012 (Ismail Zitouny/Courtesy Reuters). Youths walk past an electoral banner showing a woman holding a voting card in Tripoli on May 17, 2012 (Ismail Zitouny/Courtesy Reuters).


At the beginning of May, I wrote about the challenges surrounding Libya’s June 18 National Assembly elections. At the time, there was significant confusion over a proposed election law that would have banned political parties based on religion, ethnicity, or tribe. Since then, the National Transitional Council (NTC) has scrapped the law, but the elections could still be postponed. Last week, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of the NTC, announced that the transitional government may delay the elections while some would-be candidates appeal their disqualifications in court (in February, Libya finalized a fairly complex set of eligibility laws for the National Assembly).

As we’ve seen in Egypt, questions of candidate eligibility close to an election can spark confusion. Libya’s pool of candidates for the National Assembly is already large and unwieldy—over 4,000 candidates have registered, including more than 2,600 independent candidates. Libya’s lack of many basic institutions, such as a constitution and an independent judiciary, compounds the confusion since it is not clear how decisions on matters like candidate eligibility are made. From my perspective, this is all the more reason for Libya to hold elections in a timely manner and begin building up the country’s political infrastructure. A potential delay adds to the likelihood that ongoing civil unrest will continue to foment. Moreover, risk-averse companies will continue to sit on the sidelines of Libya’s economy until a government is formed. Already, talk of delay has Libyans grumbling about a possible power grab by the NTC, whose legitimacy as a governing body is declining by the day.

Despite concerns that Libya would descend into political chaos after Gaddafi’s fall or enter into economic free fall, the country has actually made important progress in several key areas. Militias have slowly begun ceding control of neighborhoods, roads, and infrastructure to the government. In April, a militia that had controlled the airport since the fall of Gaddafi handed control back to the government. British Airways resumed its flights to Libya on May 1; major Abu Dhabi-based Etihad was already flying to Libya as of mid-January. Libya’s oil sector has also made an impressive comeback after production fell sharply during the revolution. Libya produced 1.77 million barrels per day of crude oil before the revolution; it is producing 1.6 million now. After shutting down for a year, Libya’s stock market started trading again in mid-March. And defying naysayers, Libya has successfully registered nearly 80 percent of eligible voters including, reportedly, a 118 year-old woman. About two weeks ago, local elections took place in Benghazi, where the revolution against Gaddafi began; Benghazi residents last voted in 1964.

Still, as Libyans adjust to life after Gaddafi, serious issues related to transitional justice and human rights persist. According to a UN envoy in early May, around 4,000 people said to be supporters of Gaddafi remain in various militia-controlled and quasi-governmental prisons around the country; some detainees are being tortured, the envoy said. In a potentially positive development, all militias are supposed to hand over any cases against alleged Gaddafi supporters to prosecutors by July 1. While progress has been made, reining in the militias remains one of the most critical issues. A group of former rebels is essentially holding Gaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam hostage, refusing to turn him over to the government in Tripoli because they have not been paid in the past six months. Also, many economic migrants and individuals who have sought asylum in Libya are being detained for extended amounts of time in difficult conditions under a virtually nonexistent legal system. Human rights organizations are also concerned about a new law that grants immunity to people who committed crimes during the revolution, provided that their actions were intended to further the revolution.

Delaying Libya’s elections is not going to resolve the ongoing problems with militias. Better to move forward with the elections and bring militia leaders, however unsavory, into the political process. Longer delays risk undermining the credibility of the process and setting back the tenuous gains Libya has achieved so far.

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