On December 22, just two days before the scheduled date of the Libyan presidential election, the electoral commission announced the postponement of the poll. The High National Electoral Commission (HNEC) suggested January 24, 2022 as a new date for the polls, after a parliamentary commission overseeing the elections deemed them “impossible” to take place on December 24 as originally planned.
However, so far there is no agreement on the new date or electoral procedures, nor on whether or not to hold presidential and legislative elections on the same day. But the lack of consensus on these logistical issues is by far not the biggest problem.
There are currently major unresolved issues that polarize the country and, in the absence of an open dialogue to resolve them, holding elections on January 24 or any future date risks plunging the country into a new cycle of violence.
The puzzles of past elections
Holding elections in the midst of strong political polarization has already proved disastrous for peace in Libya. After the overthrow of long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libyan and foreign actors rushed to the elections to revive the country’s political transition. But instead of bringing stability, the elections only worsened political and social tensions, resulting in repeated episodes of deadly violence.
On July 7, 2012, Libya held its first parliamentary vote since the collapse of the Gaddafi regime to elect the 200-member General National Congress (GNC). Although hailed as “free and fair” by the major Western powers and the UN, the elections did not bring stability to the country.
The major social and political divides had not been resolved, leading to unrest before and after the vote. Old grievances from the eastern and southern regions resurfaced, as their residents viewed the uneven geographic distribution of seats as a sign that their marginalization by Tripoli would also continue in post-Gaddafi Libya.
In addition, local political actors sought to weaken the GNC. Prior to the vote, the legislature was deprived of key powers, such as appointing a committee to draft the constitution and debate its provisions. Thus, the Tripoli-based GNC was born weak, suffering from limited powers and a lack of legitimacy. The cabinet he elected was also weakened.
This allowed rogue political actors to take advantage of interregional tensions for their own political gain. In February 2014, General Khalifa Haftar, a senior officer in Gaddafi’s army who had turned against him, launched his Operation Dignity, urging the Libyans to rebel against the GNC. In May, his forces stormed the GNC building in Tripoli and launched an offensive against armed groups in Benghazi.
With its mandate expired and the country falling into war, the GNC was forced to schedule new parliamentary elections in June. Amidst the violence and record turnout, the House of Representatives was elected. Many GNC members, mostly from the west, contested the results and refused to cede legislative power to the new body. Forces loyal to the GNC prevented the newly elected MPs from starting work. In November, the Libyan Supreme Court ruled that the June 25 elections were unconstitutional, but the House of Representatives, which had received UN recognition, ignored the resolution.
Thus, at the end of the year, the country was effectively divided between two camps: the General National Congress located in Tripoli, which acted as executive and was finally replaced in 2015 by the Government of National Accord (GNA). recognized by the UN, and the House of Representatives, which had moved from the capital to the eastern port city of Tobruk.
One of the main reasons why the elections failed to move the country forward was the lack of agreement between the various political actors in Libya and commitment to the basic political principles of democratic transition. Prior to undertaking these votes, no guarantees were put in place to ensure the acceptance and compliance of all parties with the final results. No meaningful steps have been taken to resolve the historic grievances of marginalized groups and preserve their representation in new state institutions. There was also no proper reconciliation between communities and tribes that had been involved in past violence.
The absence of these important elements of the transition process led to its eventual collapse. Gradually, the division over legitimacy and state representation dragged the country into a civil war between rival camps backed by regional actors.
It then took several years for the international community and Libyan civilian forces to try to relaunch the transition process. In 2020, a ceasefire was negotiated to end Haftar’s failed offensive on Tripoli. The Libya Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) was then launched, supported by the United Nations Mission in Libya (UNSMI) and regional and international actors, such as Egypt, Turkey, Russia, France, United States and Italy – each with their own interests in Libya.
In 2021, the Government of National Unity (GNU) was formed as an interim institution to advance the political process in the country, and presidential elections were scheduled for December 24. Despite the GNU’s initial approval, the House of Representatives eventually passed a no-confidence vote against in September.
Long before the vote, it was clear that old divisions continue to fester and undermine the transition. There were several sticking points, which reflect the widespread polarization in Libya and which undermined the electoral process.
First, the Election Law, which described electoral procedures and the post-election institutional setup, was not accepted by all parties. The provisions of the law were drafted and adopted by the House of Representatives, which failed to properly consult other Libyan state institutions, such as the GNU, the Presidential Council and the High Council of State ( HSC).
The law was also drafted in such a way as to erect the Libyan political system into a presidential regime, giving the presidency significant powers. The provisions of the law also allow current electoral office holders to stand for election and then return to office if they lose.
Second, no consensus candidate, who could unite a divided Libya, was presented before the elections. In fact, the first in the race were all division figures. Among them: GNU Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, who decided to run despite his promise not to do so; Aguila Saleh, Speaker of the House of Representatives and close ally of Haftar; Haftar himself; and finally, Saif al-Islam Kadhafi, one of Kadhafi’s sons, accused of crimes against humanity and wanted by the International Criminal Court and the Attorney General of Tripoli.
Saif al-Islam’s candidacy, in particular, has sparked a great deal of outrage among Libyans, who are dismayed that an election designed to put the country back on the path of democratic transition could bring the Gaddafi regime back. While he is the most controversial of these favorites, the others are also quite problematic. It is clear that they all want to come forward to restore or protect their positions and privileges and would be unable to defuse tensions, bring the country closer together and gain the support of all regional actors.
Third, just like in 2012 and 2014, there does not appear to be a consensus on the “rules of the game” before the presidential vote. The main political actors – backed by various armed groups – clearly disagreed about what would happen after the election, how the transfer of power would take place and how recognition of the results by all would be guaranteed.
In addition, there are no neutral security forces or a unified army that could ensure the calm of the vote, no neutral judiciary that could settle disputes, and no independent media that could keep the Libyan people properly informed. More importantly, there is no reconciliation among Libyans as old and new grievances continue to fester and various communities continue to be marginalized.
The path to follow
The UN, along with the international community, has tried to close its eyes to the internal divisions between the main Libyan actors and pushed the Libyans to organize elections at all costs, as it has done in the past, to the detriment of the nation.
It is clear that holding elections under these circumstances, which are quite similar to those of 2012 and 2014, if not worse, will not lead to peace and stability in Libya. This is why the postponement of the vote must be seen as an opportunity to prevent the country from descending into a new cycle of violence.
In order to put Libya back on a path of peaceful transition, the country needs a new national dialogue supported by the UN and the international community. It should bring together all Libyan stakeholders, including civil society, representatives of ethnic minorities (such as Amazighs and Tebu), marginalized areas (such as Fezza) and marginalized groups (such as women and youth) and seek to build consensus on the electoral process, relevant legislation, transfer of power and the division of powers between state institutions.
The main political actors should publicly declare their commitment to the electoral process, commit to respecting the final results and prepare to cede their power. The dialogue is also expected to result in a roadmap to address other critical issues of the transitional period, such as the drafting of a new constitution, the reunification of state institutions – especially the military – reform security sector and reconciliation among Libyans.
A decade after the fall of the Gaddafi regime, it is time for Libya and its international partners to learn from the mistakes of the past. Rushing the Libyans to hold one more election amidst severe polarization and latent grievances will lead to more instability and violence. Libya has the potential to emerge from its failed state, but to do so, it needs the support of the international community to hold a national dialogue and move forward towards peace and reconciliation.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.