Libya’s Presidential Election: It Is More Than Just A Vote

Libya’s first presidential election, which was supposed to start on Friday, is postponed by a month with an expected start on January 24, BBC reported. Though this decision has stirred international debate, it is less likely that the election will bring any positive change to the country.  

Fadel Lamen, a leading presidential candidate, said the position was very fluid and dangerous. “Some of us are trying to crystallize a new roadmap,” Lamen said. “There are different scenarios: a very short postponement, just a shift in the date to clarify the outstanding legal issues, such as a candidate’s qualifications, or a longer six-month delay, but once you go for such a long delay anything can happen.”

Since the ouster of the veteran autocrat Muammar Gaddafi, regional and international actors have been fighting for domination. Libya has witnessed a year of relative calm since a landmark October 2020 ceasefire following almost a decade of conflict.  Yet despite this, there are some concerns regarding the possibility of renewed violence in Libya.    

Patrick Winter, a Diplomatic editor at the Guardian says: “Tensions are building over whether the interim government of national unity can remain in office after its formal term expires on the 24th. Roadblocks and armed vehicles have also begun to appear in parts of the capital, Tripoli, and four major oilfields have been shut due to their occupation by militia.” 

Frankly speaking, Libya needs more than just a vote. It seems that a myopic focus on creating a new government obscures the fact that elections alone are not enough to achieve the desired goals. The challenge lies in the ability of the future government to adopt a roadmap that supports the democratic transition in the long run 

 “At first glance, it seems that all Libyans and the international community are united behind elections. Yet, despite the pro-election statements, zero-sum competition for power continues,”  Tim Eaton, a Senior Research Fellow, and Tarek Magerisi, Researcher at the European Council for Foreign Relations, argue.  

If the international community fails to deter the ongoing efforts that aim to undermine the democratic process, it would be too naive to expect a lot from the January elections. “A program for ending Libya’s troubles must rely on a broader process of milestones for progress on key issues such as the reunification of institutions, economic and governance reform, security sector reform, reconciliation and transitional justice,” Magerisi and Eaton argue. The future government will not be able to address all of these decisive challenges without assistance from the international community.   

Add to that, the international community should make it clear to the presidential candidates that they have to accept the outcome of the election. In times of power struggles, renewed violence between national and regional actors is a possible outcome. 

The fight is now over the electoral process for whoever controls what happens next. Those in positions of power see the elections as an opportunity for advancement or self-renewal but place a priority on protecting their current position.

Magerisi and Easton say: “As Libya heads towards elections, it is apparent that a focus on ensuring the elections happen without the accompanying conditions to make polls meaningful has been a mistake. The international community’s lack of willingness to steward the process has allowed a transfer of power from the architects of the strategy and neutral international sponsors to parties involved in the conflict. This has placed the arsonists in charge of putting out the fire.” 

If actors involved in the election fail to achieve their goals through the ballot box, this might prompt a plethora of undesired consequences.  

Here lies the task of the UN and other international organizations. It is time to defend democracy and democratic values. Instead of adopting the approach of “wait and see”, they should enforce a framework for the upcoming period to make the task as easy as possible for the new government.

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