Lack of elections in Libya threatens to pave the way for politics

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While Libya has been unable to hold its first presidential election as scheduled this month in a blow to international efforts to end a decade of chaos in the oil-rich Mediterranean country, the failure to holding the vote as planned threatens to open a political vacuum.

The postponement of the Dec. 24 vote has opened up uncertainty over the rest of the fragile peace process, raising fears that Libya may sink into a new wave of violence after more than a year of relative calm.

The planned vote was the keystone of international peace efforts, and major regional and international powers had been pushing for months to make it go as planned.

But many inside and outside Libya doubted the election would go as planned. Some have warned that holding the vote could destabilize the country, given the continuing polarization.

Libya descended into chaos following the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that toppled and then killed longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi. Since then, armed groups have proliferated, including local and tribal militias, nationalist and traditional groups, and terrorist groups from Al-Qaida and Daesh.

Since the legislative elections of 2014, the country has been divided between two main rival administrations: one in the east supported by the putschist military commander General Khalifa Haftar, mainly supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Russia and France, and another to the west – the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in the capital Tripoli, mainly supported by Turkey and Qatar

Turkey and Libya have seen their ties grow closer in recent years, especially after the signing of security and maritime border pacts in November 2019, as well as Turkey’s help to help the legitimate Libyan government push back the forces. putschist Haftar.

Haftar, who was a senior officer under Gaddafi but defected in the 1980s, is based in the eastern city of Benghazi, the epicenter of the 2011 uprising. His forces control much of eastern and southern China. Libya, including its oil fields and terminals. In April 2019, Haftar and his forces launched an offensive on Tripoli, but Turkey and Qatar stepped up military support to his Tripoli-based rivals. The offensive failed after 14 months of fighting.

An internationally negotiated ceasefire in October 2020 has maintained relative peace ever since. But some of its main provisions – the withdrawal of all foreign forces and mercenaries within three months and adherence to a UN arms embargo – have not been respected.

After the ceasefire was agreed, the UN led a political process called the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, which includes 75 delegates from across the country.

The forum set the presidential and parliamentary elections for December 24. He also appointed an interim government that included a three-member Presidential Council headed by an Eastern figure, and a cabinet headed by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah, a powerful businessman from the western city of Misrata. The main task of the interim government was to prepare the country for elections.

What happened?

From the start, the process was hampered by disputes. The main governing body in the west, the Tripoli-based Supreme Council of State, denounced the rules governing the election, made by the parliament based in the east. Dbeibah joined in the criticism. As the legal challenges to the rules have still not been resolved, the Council of State has persistently requested the postponement of the vote.

Mistrust grew when lawmakers decided to hold parliamentary elections a month after the presidential election slated for December 24, rather than simultaneously.

The presidential election became highly polarized when several figures deemed intolerable by their opponents declared their intention to run – in particular Haftar and Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, son of the deposed dictator and heir apparent.

Seif al-Islam’s declaration of candidacy prompted opponents to pledge never to allow the return of the Gaddafi family to rule. The electoral commission disqualified him and two dozen other potential candidates. But on appeal, the courts restored most of them, including Seif al-Islam.

Dbeibah also declared his candidacy, sparking outrage because when he was appointed head of the transitional government he had promised not to run.

About 100 people submitted documents to run for president, but with legal disputes still ongoing, the electoral commission was unable to declare a final list of candidates.

We also did not know what would happen after the election. All parties agree that the Libyan constitution needs to be rewritten, but there has been no agreement on who will and when.

With so much at stake and so much still unresolved, the militias have expressed their discontent. Militias demanding a postponement have blocked roads in parts of Tripoli, alerting the UN mission in Libya that tensions could escalate into violence.

And each side of the country’s main east-west divide remains combat-ready, supported by mercenaries provided by their foreign backers who have not withdrawn. The actual number of mercenaries is not known, but according to the UN, they are 20,000.

And after?

Failure to vote as planned threatens to open a political vacuum.

Lawmakers argued that the interim government’s term ended on December 24. They say the government has failed in its main tasks of preparing the country for the vote, unifying its institutions and dismantling the militias or integrating them into the regular security forces.

Acting Prime Minister Dbeibah said in a televised address on Tuesday that he and his administration would stay until a “real election” was held. He said the election laws were “flawed” and demanded that the vote be based on a newly drafted constitution.

Major Western governments have called on the government to stay in power until “quick” parliamentary and presidential elections are held. The electoral commission proposed January 24 as a new date.

But it’s not clear when or if the factions can resolve the differences that led to the vote failure as planned. Stephanie Williams, the UN special advisor on Libya, has been shuttling between the major Libyan players for two weeks.

A legislative committee for the election blamed militias who it said wanted to “fabricate a distorted electoral process,” an apparent reference to Tripoli’s complaints about electoral rules.

The committee suggested drawing a “practical road map” for the elections and restructuring the interim government to “achieve stability”, without specifying the dates.

More than 100 lawmakers held two days of deliberations this week in the eastern city of Tobruk on the future of the electoral process and the interim government. The session ended without a decision and is expected to continue next week.

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