Libya Steps Toward Democracy

By Isobel Coleman

With today's national elections for Parliament, the country continues to move beyond the Qaddafi era.

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Libyan Parliamentary candidate Hannan Bachir campaigns in Tripoli. (Reuters).

Although Libyan officials earlier postponed National Assembly elections by 18 days for organizational reasons, they have stuck to their new deadline. On July 7, some 2.8 million registered voters in a country of about 6.7 million people are expected to head to the polls in the country's first national post-Qaddafi election. Libya has made substantial progress in its political transition while facing significant ongoing challenges, including controlling militias and dealing with regional tensions. This Saturday, Libyans will vote for the 200 people who will comprise the National Assembly. Eighty seats are reserved for political parties and the other 120 seats will go to individual candidates. The scale and complexity of the election are notable: around 3,700 candidates are running and more than 140 political parties and civil society organizations are involved. The National Assembly will play an important role in moving the country forward as it will be tasked with appointing a prime minister and a group to write a new constitution.

Because political polling in Libya is virtually nonexistent, it is hard to get a sense of Libyans' voting preferences, but it is clear that religion and identity politics will play a vital role. Two of the three most visible parties are clearly campaigning on an Islamic platform. The Justice and Development Party, associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, is led by Mohamed Sowan, who spent eight years as a political prisoner during Qaddafi's rule. If the Muslim Brotherhood's electoral success in both Tunisia and Egypt provides any clue, the Justice and Development Party may achieve significant gains, although the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya does not have the historical roots that it does in Tunisia and Egypt. The Homeland Party is led by Abdel Hakim Belhadj, an anti-Qaddafi insurgent who spent seven years in prison during Qaddafi's time. Belhadj has alleged past ties to Al-Qaeda leaders, and he is pursuing a legal case related to the US and British rendition programs that he says led to his torture by Libyan intelligence. Bellhadj casts himself as a moderate Muslim, and a prominent Salafi cleric has endorsed the party.

Led by former interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, the secular National Forces Alliance represents a wide range of allied groups and individuals, and is supported by liberal and business interests. Jibril's party also faces the pressure of identity politics. As Jibril, who is not a candidate in this election, recently stated, "I had to say publicly that I am not secular ... I was afraid if I don't say this ... people will be preoccupied when they go to the ballot by whether (I am) secular or not secular."  There is no doubt that this election is more about candidates' identities than their policy proposals--but this is not surprising for a country that had banned political parties for decades.

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Whether Libyan women will end up with any significant political representation also remains a major question. Forty-five percent of registered voters are women--solid, but imperfect, progress. In theory, half of the 80 seats reserved for political parties are supposed to go to women because political party lists are required to contain equal numbers of men and women. However, current party lists feature approximately 662 men and 540 women, so it is highly unlikely that women will get all 40 seats. Independent candidates will occupy the other 120 seats in the National Assembly, but women comprise less than 3.5 percent of independent candidates.

Many fear that violence and other forms of unrest will throw sand into the gears of this historic election. Recently, suspected arson damaged voting equipment and ballots in an eastern Libyan town. In Benghazi, small attacks have occurred against international convoys and consulates, and Islamic militias have protested against democratic elections, tearing down campaign posters. In May, I wrote about Libya's regional tensions and the oil-rich eastern part of the country's demands for greater autonomy and possibly even a federalist system of government. Now, on the eve of the election, an eastern group called the Barqa Council (which has an independent armed force) is urging voters to boycott the elections, claiming that the seats in the National Assembly are unfairly apportioned among the country's regions.

But there is reason for optimism. If local Libyan elections held earlier this year are any indication of things to come, the National Assembly election process may go more smoothly than many are predicting. Libyans enthusiastically turned out in Misrata and Benghazi to cast their ballots, and a handful of smaller cities also held local elections. Additionally, the Libyan elections commission has taken appropriate measures like inviting Carter Center observers into the country. Above all, around 80 percent of eligible Libyans are registered voters--a strong indication that many Libyans are eager to vote and want these elections to go smoothly.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/07/libya-steps-toward-democracy/259507/