Since the Libyan electoral process failed to see the light in December, the war-torn country appears to be sliding back to division with a looming return to parallel governments while the UN presses on Libyan parties to focus on holding elections.
Few were surprised when Libya’s elections, scheduled to take place on December 24 of last year, were postponed indefinitely. The period leading up to the voting had been marred by months-long disputes between rival Libyan factions and political bodies over the ground rules for holding the vote, how the polls should be held, and who could run. With a disputed legal framework, the electoral commission, the parliament’s election committee, and the judiciary were unable to agree on a final list of eligible candidates. Disagreement over the rules grew as divisive candidates entered the race.
Compounding these tensions was the unilateral move last September by the eastern-based parliament speaker Aguila Saleh to ratify a controversial electoral law bypassing state bodies in western Libya as well as members of his own assembly. Other political institutions rebuffed the law, saying it circumvented due process and was designed to unfairly favor Saleh’s ally, general Khalifa Haftar.
Among the 98 people registered for the presidential contest, the three most well-known and controversial candidates were initially barred from running, though they appealed and were ultimately permitted to participate. The interim prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, at the head of the Tripoli-based unity government (GNU), had pledged not to run for election when he was appointed. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, then son of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes committed as part of his father’s crackdown on revolutionaries during the 2011 uprising. Eastern commander Khalifa Haftar, who leads Libyan National Army (LNA), was seen in western areas as an unacceptable runner for waging a 14-month military offensive in April 2019 against Tripoli, where the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) was based.
The other factor underlying the postponement of the long-awaited voting is that Libya is controlled by hundreds of factionalized armed groups that back rival candidates, and thousands of foreign mercenaries remain present on the ground. This raises concerns about the destabilizing effect of foreign involvement in the political landscape.
With the elections in disarray, at the end of December, the parliament formed a political planning committee to establish a roadmap defining a timetable and process for the vote. But in the past few weeks, cobbling a new government together has been more of a priority for Libya’s political elites than putting the elections back on track.
On February 21, Libyan PM Dbeibah announced his roadmap to hold legislative elections in June, followed by the drafting of a constitution which would set the legal basis for the presidential poll to be held later. The premier reiterated that he would remain in office until an elected government is established—in defiance of the parliament’s attempt to replace him.
On February 10, the House of Representatives (HoR) had selected former interior minister Fathi Bashagha, who heads the interim government, to redraft a temporary constitution and oversee the presidential election within 14 months, directly challenging Dbeibah’s administration. Lawmakers claimed that his mandate had expired with the December election—which was not the case—and that he was supposed to step down. Installed last year and charged with leading the country to presidential and legislative polls, Dbeihbah’s unity government is set to remain until at least June—based on the rules stated by the UN-led Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). Though early media reports suggested that the UN, some western powers, and even some members of parliament were in support of Dbeibah staying in his role until elections took place, a more recent statement by the UN Secretary-General is more ambiguous.
On the day of Dbeibah’s appointment, director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, Elham Saudi tweeted, “Here we go again: 2 prime ministers and soon will have 2 governments. No elections in sight. Constitutional process in jeopardy. The rule of law coffin is all metal now by the sheer number of nails that have been hammered into it. Worst of all, this was all predictable.”
On February 24, prospective prime minister Fathi Bashagha announced that he had completed the selection of his cabinet, which obtained parliament’s approval on March 1, even though the legality of the confidence vote was questioned. On the same day, Dbeibah’s administration rejected the vote, accusing the HoR of “fraud” in granting confidence to Bashagha’s government; it said it would continue “business as usual” until election time.
In successive developments, Bashagha was sworn in as new premier by the Tobruk-based parliament on March 3; however the swearing-in ceremony was marred by chaos: two of the proposed ministers were reportedly abducted by a militia in Misrata affiliated with Dbeibah, and airspace over Tripoli and Misrata was closed overnight in an alleged attempt to prevent members of the government from reaching the eastern Libyan city.
“After the elections collapsed, the post-2011 political elites went into a mode that effectively consists [of] shaping a post-Dbeibah government without holding elections,” Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher specializing in Libya said to TIMEP.
Libya is once again being torn apart with two competing prime ministers vying for power and divisions between east and west deepening. Instead of re-planning elections, the oil-rich nation now finds itself with two parallel administrations, each proposing separate election roadmaps aimed at pushing their political rivals out of power while maintaining their own institutional power.
“Today’s crisis is in large part based on the assumption that individuals responsible for Libya’s political crisis and wars will demonstrate self-sacrifice and willingly give up the political institutions and military power they have clung to for years through an electoral roadmap of their own design,” Anas El Gomati, director of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, argued in an article published in IPS journal.
There are fears that the deepening political crisis could renew fighting between rival armed groups that have mobilized in western Libya over recent weeks. The UN has made repeated calls for elections to be held “as soon as possible.” UN Special Adviser on Libya Stephanie Williams recently reiterated her demand for all actors to keep the focus on the electoral process. “I want the HoR as quickly as possible to set out a credible political process that answers the question that almost three million Libyans have asked, which is: what has become of our elections?” Williams told the Guardian in an interview. She also highlighted the need for various Libyan political forces to pursue the broadest possible consensus through an inclusive and transparent process. Yet finding a mechanism that should guarantee the conduct of elections appears a very difficult task right now.
Harchaoui observed that the UN finds itself in a dilemma. On the one hand, it could choose to recognize prime minister-designate Bashagha in the hopes that he will guide the country toward the polls and resign afterwards. Though allowing a new PM without polls may send a signal that no elections will ever happen in Libya. On the other hand, the UN is likely very wary of letting Bashagha step in at the risk that he may, instead, stay in power without a vote taking place. Dbeibah, for his part, may push for elections in June—the UN mission in Libya’s desired date—with the view to remain in his post in Tripoli for another few months, then derail the electoral process and entrench himself further.
For Harchaoui, a missed election would result in impunity, given how local actors who are in control of the country’s politics are used to cutting deals based on the money, territory, and power they have accumulated. “Not seeing an election would be very bad news for the populace. It would mean that the amount of wealth stolen from the population will keep growing if things continue in this direction,” Harchaoui contended.
Elections are unlikely to take place in June without a commonly accepted constitutional framework for presidential and legislative polls, or a secure and stable political settlement to conduct the voting. Moreover, the election commission said it needs at least eight months to prepare for a new vote. The election process that was delayed days before the vote was seen, particularly by the UN and the LPDF roadmap, as critical to ending Libya’s endless transitional period. Many among the nearly three million Libyans registered to vote in December may be growing impatient to go to the ballot box. There is hope that the vote will help stop the chaos and violence that has plagued the North African nation for eleven years, since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising against Muammar Gaddafi left it split between warring administrations in the east and west.
Instead of having new institutions chosen by voters, until now the country has seen procrastination after procrastination with the same institutions and politicians seeking to stay in power as long as possible. Meanwhile, some 20,000 foreign forces and mercenaries remain on Libyan soil, and Turkey and Russia maintain an ongoing strategic presence in the country. Although an election alone cannot fix Libya’s crises of legitimacy and political infighting, it could very well play a critical part in moving the country further through this transition.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist specializing in the Middle East and North Africa.