Libya goes to the polls

by Rhodri C. Williams

Hamdulillah! After weeks of increasing tension over last minute objections to the allocation of mandates in what is to be Libya’s first properly elected and fully sovereign legislature, and months of increasing uncertainty over the interim government’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law, the BBC confirms that the people will now have their say.

Is Libya ready for the results? Robert Kaplan and Kamran Bokhari point to the new Libya’s “low level chaotic violence” as an argument for withholding “cold-turkey democracy” from any new Syria to emerge from that country’s ongoing bloodbath. But, by my lights, the Economist gets it on the money this time:

Building respect for the law, after 42 years of Qaddafi’s bizarre rule, will be the hardest task. Hundreds of pro-Qaddafi prisoners (some say more) are still in the hands of militias, who have also recently arrested an Australian lawyer from the International Criminal Court at The Hague after she had come to visit Saif Qaddafi, the colonel’s son, who is held in Zintan. The new government will have to act fast to tackle such judicial shortcomings if the country is to be put firmly on a path to the rule of law. A peaceful election would be a giant first step.

Beyond the policy argument – that democracy is part of the solution, not part of the problem – there is the intuitive rationale that will have struck anyone who has traveled to Libya recently. Saleh, who just undertook his seasonal shift to a shadier spot in Tripoli’s old town coffee shop, has registered. He had no idea who he was going to vote for, the list of approved parties hadn’t even been announced yet with less than a month to go, but he couldn’t wait to vote. If the Libyans are really to ever own Libya, it cannot be by the right of conquest alone.

4 responses to “Libya goes to the polls

  1. By happenstance, I just came across a brilliant essay by Sean Kane on Foreign Policy that beautifully captures the mad chiaroscuro of optimism and gloom that characterizes Libya on this election day. Highly recommended in its entirety but here is a foretaste:

    “Libya is astonishingly variegated for such a small and relatively homogenous country. Concisely and cogently summarizing the state of its revolutionary transition is like grasping at smoke. Do you focus on the guns and unaccountable militias, absence of courts and other bedrock institutions, and overall dearth of social trust? Or do you instead give weight to the intense popular underpinning for the revolution, seeming faculty to contain violence despite weak governance, and a brand of politics that is not polarized by either ideology or identity? Even Libyans seem to believe that their transition is too complicated to be cast as moving along the right or wrong path and that reality lies somewhere in between.”

  2. According to BBC’s latest, the poll went off gratifyingly well, given that unhappy denizens of Libya’s ostensibly underrepresented East shot down a helicopter killing one election volunteer and more or less closed down most of Libya’s oil terminals for the day.

    From a rule of law perspective, one slightly jarring note was the TNC’s ad hoc, last minute decision to hold a separate election for the panel meant to draft Libya’s new constitution. Sticking with agreed procedures should not necessarily always be given absolute priority, but it would make a refreshing change from the way Gaddafi did things.

    “In an attempt to defuse the situation, the NTC has said the new parliament will no longer be responsible for naming the panel that will draft Libya’s new constitution. The 60-member committee will be elected in a separate vote at a later date.”

  3. Belatedly, one more very good piece of journalism, this one hinting darkly (pre-election) that we should all count ourselves pretty lucky now to find ourselves congratulating Libya on a poll that was delayed but not deferred. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Nicholas Pelham also provides one of the best journalistic descriptions of the ethnic tensions in the south of Libya that I have read to date:

  4. And one more by Frederick Wehrey in Foreign Affairs on the huge post-election challenge of ensuring that the state actually regains the monopoly of violence (after all, who do we imagine was providing security for the elections?)

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