POMED Notes: “Libya’s First Elections: A Preliminary Look at Results and Outlook”
On Wednesday, the Atlantic Council hosted an event entitled, “Libya’s First Election: A Preliminary Look at Results and Outlook.” The panel feature Gregory Kehailia, the Senior Program Manager for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES); Fadel Lamen, President of the American Libyan Council; and Esam Omeish, Director of the Libyan Emergency Taskforce. The event was moderated by Karim Mezran, Senior Fellow of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here.
Gregory Kehailia opened the discussion noting that despite some delays and isolated incidents, the security of polling stations was generally good during the election. 98.5 percent of the centers had opened by the close of day on the first day of the election. Elections workers completed their mission with great efficiency, and the elections from that standpoint have so far been a success. This point of view has been shared by other observers including the EU Assessment Team and the Carter Center.
Kehailia argued that the organization of the elections was an enormous challenge for a number of reasons: the strict timeline for layout of the election process; limited coordination between administrative ministries and various political forces; and finalizing the list of candidates. Therefore the postponement of elections was a very responsible decision. The decision allowed time for campaigning, where the extraordinarily complex electoral system made it difficult for voters to know who and what they were voting for, and it for coordination between a large number of groups required to provide security for the polling stations. Moving forward, Kehailia believes, the role and function of the General National Congress (GNC) will be an extremely important issue. They will be responsible for electing a president of the congress by secret ballot, appointing a prime minister, and drafting a new electoral law.
Fadel Lamen argued that, though we cannot equate successful elections with a functioning government, they are an important first step. However, the fact that only 63 percent voted of those who registered, was a result of the elections law itself, which made it difficult to know who were the individuals, parties, and platforms. Many voted for people they know of, or felt they could trust. Whoever wins, Lamel contended, will not have an absolute majority, and will thus need to cooperate with other political forces, preferably toward the creation of a unity government. Of chief concern is whether Jibril can keep his coalition together, let alone bring a larger coalition into being.
Additionally, three other groups bear watching as well: tribal authorities, regional representatives, and sympathizers with the former regime. These groups will play an interesting role in the future, and whoever is trying to rule them will have to cooperate with them is some way. Regarding the GNC, the reality is that it is essentially the same as the NTC (National Transition Council), except that it is legitimate. “The morning after the election results are known, all the challenges and issues will be the same,” Lamen observed. It is an elected body that is supposed to have a legislative function, an executive function, and authority over the judiciary in some way. Congress will face important issues including regional and tribal loyalties, the scope a national reconciliation, and how to deal with the influence of militias. It will be reluctant, and may be unable to shape policies. “The challenges are tough,” argued Lamen, “but can the Libyan people come together to face them? Let’s hope so. The lack of experience and the severity of problems may prevent them.”
Esam Omeish noted that we will have to expect some surprises, but until the dust settles, we should attempt to analyze the elections in the context of the challenges that lie ahead and the composition of the new congress, in order to project how to engage Libya in what comes after. We are dealing with a body that has important responsibilities for the next phase, so engaging with them will become an important priority for all international players. Regarding the composition of the congress, it appears that the National Forces Alliance (NFA) will constitute a large portion of the body. The NFA is indeed an alliance, and one with a national agenda, though it is not exceptional in any way. “Can these players remain coherent?” Omeish asked. “I don’t think it has that capacity.” The other important actor is the GNC will be the Justice and Development party. What we don’t want to see is polarization by people working with just those they are comfortable with, creating niches for old regime sympathizers, and regional and tribal actors.
Omeish emphasized that discussion of the politics of Libya as the progress of Liberals in opposition to Islamist forces is a premature and inaccurate way of approaching change in the region. If we are making an assessment of how the U.S. should engage with Libya and the region, we must be able to sift through the smaller events and trends, while engaging with all parties.
Karim Mezran followed up by lamenting that the manner in which the press handled coverage of the election was disappointing. It is not about whether the secularists or Islamists are winning, he argued, the real issue is the atomization and fragmentation of society. He asked Gregory Kehailia why it was that such a complex electoral system was agreed upon. Kehailia responded that there were two factors at work. A first, less positive aspect, was the fact that there were many, perhaps too many, experts working on the issue at the same time. However, the main motivation, and a more important factor, was an attempt to create a balanced system that reflected the diversity of Libyan society.