Libya's Election Timetable Thrown Into Doubt
Growing tensions between Libya's ruling Transitional National Council (TNC) and the interim government reflect serious concerns over the lack of preparation in place for critical upcoming elections in June.
IHS Global Insight Perspective
The TNC's election timetable was always ambitious, and mounting concerns that the vote won't be ready by June have prompted a rift between the TNC and the government.
The TNC has refused to consider any delay, and the margin for error in organising the vote is rapidly closing.
A rushed process risks jeopardising the credibility of the vote, while any delay could result in widespread unrest, leaving the TNC with few options but to forge onwards.
Libya's increasingly turbulent preparations for the holding of national constituent assembly elections, currently scheduled for 19 June, have raised concerns that the vote may have to be delayed. Tensions have been increasingly evident between the ruling Transitional National Council (TNC) and the interim government appointed to oversee Libya's post-conflict recovery and transition towards a democratic system, highlighted by members of the TNC hinting in recent weeks at a possible cabinet reshuffle. The possibility of a reshuffle before the election was ruled out this week by TNC chief Mustafa Abdul Jalil (see Libya: 23 April 2012: Libyan TNC Rules Out Government Reshuffle Before Elections); however, the briefing against his government prompted Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib yesterday (25 April) to launch a rare public attack on the TNC. "In this historic moment, we find ourselves shackled by members of the Transitional National Council, who continued to attack the government and threaten to cast a no confidence vote," al-Keib told journalists in Tripoli. "This blocks our efforts to carry out our duties in the service of the February 17 revolution, chiefly, holding elections on time," he added, warning that failure to hold the vote on time "could derail the revolution."
Growing concerns over the High National Election Commission's slow progress in organising the elections prompted Jalil to sack the commission's chairman Uthman Gajiji yesterday, alongside four other executive board members. Gajiji was replaced by the commission's spokesman, Nuri Elabbar, who assured local media that he was already at his post and working towards meeting the electoral deadline. The replacement of the head of the electoral commission at such a late stage is a huge gamble, and reflects the high political stakes involved in holding the election on time. Jalil has invested a great deal of his personal credibility in reassuring the Libyan public that the vote will not be postponed, and he appeared on television shortly after Gajiji's replacement to repeat his pledge that the election will take place according to plan.
Huge logistical challenges remain to ensure that the vote is a credible reflection of the popular will. The commission has yet to draw up a national register of voters, having chosen to create its own lists rather than use those drawn up for local elections in Benghazi and Misratah. Whereas registration for the local elections was based on residency, registration for the national elections rests solely on the holding of a Family Book, the primary form of identification in Libya that every family theoretically possesses. Registration of the 3.4 million eligible voters is due to begin on 1 May and last two to three weeks, resulting in a preliminary voter list that people will have two days to legally challenge. A definitive list is then intended to be produced within five days. The tight election timetable gives aspiring candidates only two weeks to campaign after registration and approval, with the commission anticipating approximately 3,000 candidates countrywide.
Such a tight timetable leaves little margin for error or delay in what will be Libya's first national vote since the 2011 conflict that overthrew former leader Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi and devastated large areas of the country. The election commission has already indicated that Libyans living abroad are unlikely to be able to vote, as there is no time to draw up a database of expatriates, many of whom lack documented Libyan citizenship. A timely example of the possible pitfalls facing the national vote was provided by the Tripoli Local Council elections this week, where voter registration had yet to commence on 25 April, only days before the 5 May vote. The head of the local election commission assured reporters that despite "some serious issues" everything would be "sorted out," however it seems likely that the deadline will be missed.
The organisation of the election is further complicated by the government's lack of authority beyond the capital, Tripoli, meaning that many of the 1,500 voter registration centres and not-yet established polling stations will fall under the supervision of local military councils and revolutionary brigades. While the brigades have succeeded in ensuring a measure of stability in the towns and cities along Libya's densely populated coastal strip, in the south of the country there have been repeated clashes between heavily armed rival tribal factions. There are also serious concerns that the oversight of the brigades will fuel electoral fraud and voting irregularities, as previous attempts to outsource administrative matters to the military councils resulted in widespread corruption (see Libya: 13 April 2012: Revolutionaries Attack Libyan Government HQ After Payments Suspended). Countering these concerns is the enduring strength of Libya's "revolutionary spirit," whereby much of the public is unified behind the principle of holding a free and fair election. However, this tacit pact remains fragile and could fall apart if the gains of the revolution are perceived to be under threat, a fact the TNC is well aware of.
Outlook and Implications
The recent suggestion by unidentified TNC members that senior members of the government, including al-Keib himself, might be replaced ahead of the election reflects a growing concern among Libya's political elite regarding the progress of the preparations for the vote. These concerns were further highlighted by the replacement of Gajiji, a considerable gamble for Jalil so late in the electoral timetable, and one that he will be hoping provides swift results. The reluctance of the brigades to surrender their weapons and merge into the defence and interior ministries is a key obstacle to the normalisation of the security environment in Libya, providing an additional unwelcome complication to the electoral commission's task. The TNC and government have staked considerable political capital on the 19 June date for the elections being met, and currently seem likely to proceed with the vote even if the conditions are not in place to guarantee it is free and fair.
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