If Libyans really go to the polls as planned, on 24 December, it will be a moment of history-making and a new reality in the conflict ravaged country.
The North African country never had a president before, let alone running one in which the president is directly elected by the people. After independence in 1951, the country became a kingdom led by King Idris I, until he was overthrown by the late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 1969, making Libya a Republic.
Furthermore, if the outcome of the election is universally accepted by all political actors in the fractured country, then the process of democratic elections would mark the first serious attempt to finally start another more important process – the beginning of conflict resolution and state building after a long decade of political feuds and armed struggle.
Elections have always been the most unifying wish for the majority of Libyans who have paid a heavy price throughout the country during the last ten years.
Right after the former regime was toppled by the armed rebellion, heavily supported by outside powers, including NATO in 2011, Libyans had a golden opportunity to settle their differences and reconcile before any elections. Instead, under pressure from Western powers, parliamentary elections were held and the country rushed to elections in 2012: the West wanted to show that overthrowing Gaddafi was a worthy cause. The polls took place in a fractured society, dominated by tribes and dysfunctional political elite, most of whom were exiles and refugees who have never seen Libya for decades during the Gaddafi era. No reconciliation process ever took place and a sense of revenge and score settling prevailed, further driving people apart.
Thousands were jailed, displaced and experienced bureaucrats, with the knowledge of how government works, were driven out to be replaced by the elite who had little or no government experience. Between 2012 and 2105, the best credentials any bureaucrat could have were being anti-Gaddafi. The West, which helped fuel the civil war, never seriously considered the day after Gaddafi was gone, and how Libya would end up. A decade later, and the outcome is obvious; not only did the State cease to properly function but Libya itself was, and still is, on the brink of partition. If anything, the coming elections might as well reinforce this idea.
Despite all the earlier legal and procedural wrangles, the election commission is expected, shortly, to announce the final official list of presidential hopefuls.
We should remember that the upcoming polls are not taking place because the country is ready for elections in the belief that such step would solve the conflict – far from it. Libyans will vote, knowing only too well that elections are not the solution to their country’s multitude of problems. In fact, they are voting to get rid of the political elite, including elected parliamentarians who failed to serve the people in any meaningful way.
Far from it, the elections and the government of National Unity, if any good, will come out of the special set up organised by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), sensing that the political leaders across the political spectrum will neither agree nor welcome any substantial change to the status quo from which they are benefitting. UNSMIL formed the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum – the 75-member body became a mini parliament engaged in series of discussions.
The Forum ended up by drawing a political roadmap to salvage the country, elected a prime minister and a three-member Presidency Council. UNSMIL, anticipating troubles from, what UNSMIL’s former leader, Ghassan Salame, called “the status quo party”, made it mandatory that the roadmap includes a clause that says whenever the country’s institutions disagree over any issue, the Forum will take over to solve it. This effectively sidelined all political actors whenever they fail to agree on any issue.
Thus, this election is not about solving the country’s many problems but, rather, it is hoped that they will produce a different political elite through voting for president and new legislative – new faces that are more serious about the country and its people.
This fact is usually overlooked by commentators who indulge in debating the elections as a way of ending conflict, unifying state institutions, resetting the economy and ending militias’ hegemony, among other things.
In reality, Libya, by going to the polls, in such a poisoned political and legal atmosphere, is taking a big gamble. Elections do not end conflicts but might launch a process towards that end, and these upcoming elections might just leave Libya where it was after the 2014 elections which produced two governments and a more divided parliament.
This does not mean, in any way, that elections should not take place, as that would mean the same “status quo party” will extend its life span which should have finished years ago.
In other words, the ever uncertain elections, are a referendum on what is known as “February 17 revolution” of 2011 that has, so far, failed in every aspect. The only success the “revolution” has, so far, made and keeps enforcing is making the majority of Libyans nostalgic for Gaddafi’s Libya, particularly in areas of security and stability.
This fact is being manifested by Gaddafi’s son, Saif Al-Islam, who is running for president. Furthermore, Gaddafi loyalists are expected to dominate the next parliament if, again, elections take place in a free and democratic manner. According to the election commission, as of 4 December, 3967 people have registered to contest the legislative poll – at least half of them are not pro- “revolution.” This, of course, does not mean they are Gaddafi supporters. However, the living conditions of the Libyan people over the last decade, may be, Saif Al-Islam’s biggest supporter.
However, it is precarious to imagine that Libya has become so democratic to be led by Saif Al-Islam, but the man is enjoying a lead in every opinion poll, so far. Indeed, such polls are neither professional nor accurate interpretation of the public mood, but they are an indication of what is coming.