In the seemingly endless political turbulence and unrest of post-Gadhafi Libya, elections are both a beacon of hope and a quagmire. After plans to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in 2021 collapsed at the last minute, 2023 looked like it might be the year when voting would finally take place, as prioritized by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya and the U.N.'s special envoy, Abdoulaye Bathily. Once again, those plans fell short.
But the U.N. mission is still leading the charge for long-hoped-for elections, pushing first for an accord on electoral laws. In November, Bathily asked Libya's rival factions, split between the capital Tripoli in the west and Benghazi in the east, to designate representatives for talks aimed at reaching an agreement on a national vote. Since a cease-fire in 2020 brought most fighting in Libya to a halt, international diplomacy has focused primarily on arranging elections, but it has little to show for it.
And now, entering 2024, the prospects still look bleak for any agreement on electoral laws and holding elections this year.
In the seemingly endless political turbulence and unrest of post-Gadhafi Libya, elections are both a beacon of hope and a quagmire.
- Youssef Mohammad Sawani
The much-hailed elections of 2012 for Libya's new General National Congress, the first elections in Libya in more than 40 years, were touted as a historic stride toward democratic rebirth after Moammar Gadhafi's dictatorship, bringing to Libya the promise of free and fair electoral politics. But they were flawed from the start. The elections occurred amid escalating tensions right after the Gadhafi regime's fall but before the war to oust Gadhafi had fully ended. Large segments of the populace were excluded from voting, which only deepened the country's divisions. The transitional authorities' inability to facilitate a comprehensive national dialogue and establish a solid framework for reconciliation only worsened the situation.
Moreover, the adoption of a mixed electoral system—with some seats designated for individuals and elected by simple plurality in winner-take-all votes, and others set aside for political parties and elected through proportional representation by party list—confused many voters. The outcome birthed the GNC, a body wielding both legislative and executive powers, yet sowing the seeds of division and discord.
Despite the National Forces Alliance, led by the late Mahmoud Jibril, winning the majority of votes, the implementation of a sweeping "Political Isolation Law" that barred Gadhafi-era officials from holding public office prevented many winners from actually taking their seats in the GNC. That fueled more political discord that eventually erupted in civil war. Instead of being a cornerstone for political continuity and legitimacy, the 2012 elections were a setback for Libya's democratic transition. The GNC lost its legitimacy as a neutral mediator and came to represent, for many Libyans, the interests of a select few political parties. Calls for new elections rose, leading to a protest movement against extending the GNC's mandate, which Khalifa Haftar capitalized on. The growing popular discontent eventually compelled the GNC to agree to parliamentary elections in 2014 for a new House of Representatives to replace it.
The House of Representatives elections saw only 18 percent voter turnout, against a backdrop of fear and civil strife. The power structure that had previously prevailed in the GNC changed as Islamist forces and their allies lost control in the new House of Representatives. However, this change did not find a response on the ground, as the forces controlling Tripoli and the other armed militias of western Libya rejected the results of the elections. This macabre performance forced the House of Representatives to relocate eastward to Tobruk, while the GNC clung to power and resurrected itself as the High Council of State in 2015.
Earlier in 2014, the GNC had organized a separate election for a constituent assembly to draft a permanent constitution, but controversy and disagreement surrounded both the assembly and its draft constitution. The crescendo of conflict precipitating civil war reached its zenith when Libya's Supreme Court, based in Tripoli, ruled that the parliamentary elections themselves were unconstitutional and that the House of Representatives should be dissolved.
Since 2014, rival military forces in Libya's east and west, with their own competing claims of legitimacy, have resisted any reforms and refused any political compromise. Their ongoing clashes are rooted in disputes and grievances formed during this crucial period between the 2012 and 2014 elections. The failure to prioritize dialogue over competition in Libya's initial political transition, culminating in those two ill-fated elections, not only laid the ground for civil war, but led to the current crisis and deadlock over holding another vote.
Elections, despite their democratic allure, have over the past 12 years in Libya unwittingly fueled violence, division and further conflict because of their flaws.
- Youssef Mohammad Sawani
After the fall of the Gadhafi regime, Libyan politics have been a tableau of conflict, violence and corruption. Electoral laws drafted late last year by a committee of the House of Representatives and the advisory High Council of State are part of a turbulent dance of politicians agreeing to terms for a vote and then reneging on them—a vivid testament to the potential perils elections might unleash.
Elections, despite their democratic allure, have over the past 12 years in Libya unwittingly fueled violence, division and further conflict because of their flaws. Yet they are still viewed by the U.N. and Western powers as the solution to Libya's interminable political crisis. Uncertainties loom over the feasibility of genuinely free and fair elections in the country, given doubts about the political and democratic commitments of key figures—on one side, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, the prime minister under the U.N.-backed Government of National Unity (GNU) in Tripoli, and his allies in the High Council of State, and on the other, the military forces led by Khalifa Haftar and his allies in the House of Representatives in the east. The specter of Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, who sees himself as a symbol able to reunite Libya, also hangs over any election; he had registered to run for president before the 2021 vote was canceled.
Rather than a panacea, elections may stoke further instability, deepen existing schisms and fall prey to spoilers, hindering the elusive path to national reconciliation. Conducting elections with competing (and armed) forces vying for any advantages before the polls will intensify factional divisions and only add to Libya's turmoil. Obstructionist parties stand ready to hinder and undermine any electoral process, while facing limited international pressure. The ongoing divisions internationally over Libya, among global and regional powers, further reduce the likelihood of the international community imposing an agreement for a unified and accepted executive authority in the country to oversee any elections.
But there is an alternative, a better path still rooted in democracy. Expanding local elections and nurturing grassroots governance would dilute the hegemony of central authorities, in both the GNU and around Haftar. Empowering local communities could minimize conflicts over centrally managed resources, reduce the negative effects of Libya's rentier economy, chip away at ever-expanding corruption, and lay the foundation for peace and reconciliation. There are still many in Libya yearning to build an inclusive, modern and democratic state, and this would resonate with the aspirations they have held onto through civil war and conflict.
Only then could a vision take shape for a comprehensive settlement, born of consensus and reconciliation—a national dialogue led by Libyans with the support of the international community but devoid of direct external interference. Libya's political landscape could finally reflect the hopes of a people yearning for a country in tune with the true spirit of democracy.