Three things to watch for in the Libya elections

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On 25 June Libya will hold its second parliamentary elections since the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Voter registration has been fairly low: out of an estimated population of 6 million, only 1.5 million people have registered to vote, as compared to 2.8 million in the July 2012 elections.

The United Nations and the main European Union member states have pressed ahead with the elections. The United Kingdom has provided 64 percent of the $6.5-million fund that supported the electoral process. And the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has provided crucial technical support.

Results are not likely to come in quickly. And when they do come in, the returns will be hard to understand, because under the current electoral law, no party lists are allowed. Instead, nominally independent candidates run in single-seat constituencies. Three factors will be helpful to consider in assessing the elections on Wednesday and after.

1.      The size of the turnout. Of the 1.5 million who registered, two-thirds were signed up automatically because they had registered for the 20 February elections to the Constituent Assembly, held to elect members to draft Libya’s new constitution. On that occasion, less than half of all registered voters went to the polls. Some observers say that in this election, a turnout of 500,000 would be a good accomplishment, especially in light of the next factor.

2.      Whether polls are open and secure. The UN as well as Tripoli-based diplomats will probably judge how successful the operation has been based on how many of the 1,300 polling stations actually open on Wednesday. This will depend on the security situation, particularly in some cities in Cyrenaica (especially Benghazi and Derna), in Sirte, and in the south. In February, entire constituencies had to postpone the vote because of security threats – and at that point, the current offensive by the renegade general, Khalifa Heftar, had not yet taken place.

3.      Who recognises the results. A “reconciliation” meeting between Libya’s opposing coalitions was due to be held on 18 June under the auspices of UNSMIL. However, the meeting had to be indefinitely postponed, because elements close to General Heftar’s anti-Islamist coalition accused the UN of being biased in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood. At the moment, the warring parties have made no commitment to recognise the election results.

Lack of recognition of the results from all sides in the Libyan political sphere could turn out to be a major cause of regret for European policymakers. Holding elections in the current situation, with the country divided between two warring coalitions, is an uncalculated risk. Polls may actually accelerate violence rather than solving Libya’s problems.

As argued in ECFR’s policy brief, A European Agenda to Support Libya’s Transition, Europeans should avoid taking a “tick-the-box approach” in which certain measurable steps must be made within a given timeframe. If polls do actually open on Wednesday 25 June, three crucial elements will be missing: a functioning judiciary that can deal with contested results (as of now, according to Human Rights Watch, courts are closed in Benghazi, Derna, Sirte, and Sebha); a comprehensive monitoring mission that extends to all corners of Libya; and an independent media commission.

It’s too late to make up for these shortcomings, but Europeans should still pursue some of the main elements of the agenda described in our brief. They should focus most urgently on the following three tasks:

1.      Create incentives for a power-sharing agreement between the major Libyan stakeholders while spelling out clear disincentives for spoilers. For instance, it would be worthwhile to state clearly that Europeans will not buy oil except through the legitimate central Libyan government.

2.      Create a co-ordination mechanism to deal with day-to-day crises. The United States, the EU, and the large EU member states have all appointed Special Envoys for Libya. These external stakeholders should come up with a co-ordinated response to the current crisis and to addressing post-election tensions.

3.      Build a comprehensive approach to security based on local peace agreements and national dialogue. Too many people in the West have bought into the “war on terror” narrative, under which Libya’s current problems can be eliminated by swift “counter-terrorism” operations against Islamist militias. They need instead to realise that solutions will only be achieved through political inclusivity.

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