What hope is there for Libya's long-awaited elections?

What hope is there for Libya's long-awaited elections?
New efforts to hold delayed elections offer a glimmer of hope to end Libya's deep political crisis. But the Libyan people remain sceptical, writes Ferhat Polat.
5 min read
21 Mar, 2024
Elections are a crucial step towards security and stability in Libya, but there are many obstacles in the way, writes Ferhat Polat. [Getty]

Rival Libyan leaders recently announced that they have agreed on the necessity of forming a new unified government to oversee Libya's long-delayed elections.

The elections in Libya, initially scheduled for December 2021, have been delayed indefinitely, due to disagreements about the electoral law and who should be allowed to stand in the polls. 

By delaying the elections, the dispute over the legitimacy of the current Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, has heightened. The Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) speaker, Aguila Saleh, argued that Dbeibah's mandate expired when the interim government failed to hold elections.

As a result, Libya once again fell into a deep political crisis. The appointment of Fathi Bashagha as prime minister by the HoR, with support from warlord Khalifa Haftar, has led to further turmoil in the country.

"Amidst the turmoil gripping Libya, recent developments offer a glimmer of hope for the nation's stability and security"

Bashagha installed his government in Sirte, intending to enter and capture Libya’s capital Tripoli. But Bashagha's attempts to take control of Tripoli have been unsuccessful, resulting in violent clashes with Dbeibah's Government of National Unity (GNU) forces, killing dozens of people and wounding hundreds.

Following his inability to enter Tripoli, the HoR has decided to suspend Bashagha and assign his finance minister, Osama Hamada, to take over his responsibilities.

Amidst the turmoil gripping Libya, recent developments offer a glimmer of hope for the nation's stability and security. Recently, the country's interior minister announced that armed groups in Tripoli have agreed to leave the capital and allow regular forces to take over before the end of Ramadan on 10th April.

After over a decade of conflict, Libya is deeply divided and lacks strong national institutions and democratic experience, leading to a power vacuum that has allowed various armed groups to assert control over different parts of the country.

This has resulted in ongoing violence and instability, making it difficult for the Libyan people to rebuild their country and move towards a more peaceful and prosperous future.  Previous plans for swift elections have failed, but recent developments have brought hope for the future.

However, there are still many challenges that lie ahead on the road to stability in Libya. The absence of a constitution remains at the core of Libya’s problems concerning elections. In addition, there is a lack of security and the presence of foreign fighters.

The lack of a clear constitutional framework outlining the government structure and division of powers in Libya has been a hurdle to the electoral process. The Draft Constitution, developed by the Constitutional Drafting Assembly from 2014 to 2017 and finalised in July 2017, has yet to be subjected to a referendum. 

In the meantime, the Constitutional Declaration established by the National Transitional Council in August 2011 continues to serve as the temporary constitutional framework for the country.

There are various reasons for the failure, including domestic and external challenges encountered by the constitution-making body and ongoing disagreements among rival sides regarding different aspects of the final draft constitution.

For Libya to conduct successful and legitimate elections, the rival factions must agree on a constitutional framework well in advance. Creating a new constitution should outline the governance structure, define the roles and powers of the central authority, and establish clear rules for presidential, parliamentary, and electoral processes.

Elections are important for two main reasons. Firstly, they allow a country to move past its current political structure. In Libya, with two separate parliaments and governments, the lack of unity hinders state institutions from functioning effectively.

By creating the right conditions, elections could pave the way for a more cohesive and efficient political system. Secondly, polls can provide a roadmap for the nation's future by giving a mandate to a newly elected government.

"Despite the recent positive steps taken towards forming a new unified government and removing militia forces from the capital, many Libyans remain sceptical"

The situation in Libya still presents the worst possible preconditions for elections. Security issue is another key obstacle.

Research in post-conflict contexts has consistently found that successful elections are more likely when one side is definitively defeated, security measures are in place to guarantee peaceful voting, and credible electoral and judicial systems exist to prevent disputes over results.

Failing to meet these conditions can actually heighten the risk of a resurgence of violence.

Therefore, it is crucial to implement security sector reform. This involves integrating, unifying, and controlling militia groups to prevent the spread of weapons within the country. Thus, Libya needs military training.

Turkey has been one of the NATO members providing such support since a military cooperation agreement between the UN-backed government and Turkey was signed in 2019. The agreement was intended to provide essential military resources and training to help transition Tripoli-allied militias into a standing army.

Despite the recent positive steps taken towards forming a new unified government and removing militia forces from the capital, many Libyans remain sceptical about the potential success of the political negotiations.

This scepticism is fuelled by the history of previous political talks, which have shown little progress. Mistrust between rival parties, deeply entrenched divisions, and competing interests create significant barriers to achieving a sustainable agreement.

Without security, election laws, a widely accepted constitution, and unifying state institutions, especially military ones, any initiative to hold the elections will likely fail.

Ferhat Polat is a Chevening Scholar from the 2022 cohort and a researcher at the TRT World Research Centre. Holding an MA in Middle East Studies from the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, he specialises in North African geopolitics and security, with a particular focus on Libya.

Follow him on Twitter (X): @Ferhattpol

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.