Hurrying Libyans to an early vote could prove counter-productive unless European powers unify and take action on problems now
Calls for elections in Libya to take place sooner rather than later are growing ever louder; new elections are central to the action plan presented by United Nations envoy Ghassan Salamé to the General Assembly in September last year. As these calls rise to a clamour, the need for a poll to take place has become a central focus of the P3+3 grouping (France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States along with representation from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates). Meanwhile, the French have moved ahead with their own initiative to get elections scheduled before the end of 2018.
The logic behind this development is fairly straightforward. The civil war of 2014 widened Libya’s already complex fractures, bringing about political atomisation, the emergence of rival financial institutions in the east of the country, and a weakening of the existing branches of government which froze the Libyan state’s ability to act. In this vacuum, informal mechanisms of operating have flourished, enriching and empowering those in positions of political, economic, or military authority. The incredibly lucrative nature of this new status quo has in turn created a powerful incentive for the current elite to maintain it even as violence, criminality and general dilapidation overwhelm the country. This elite has exploited international attempts at brokering a political reunification and stabilising the crumbling quality of life in order to increase their power, influence or access to resources.
After four years of this, international actors are exasperated. This frustration has led them to seek a ‘forcing mechanism’ that can be used to disrupt the status quo and instigate change. Given the paucity of policy tools available, elections have quickly become the commonly agreed-upon forcing mechanism for political reform and institutional reunification.
There was a widespread lack of belief in the legitimacy of the 2014 vote exacerbated by the absence of a credible dispute resolution forum
In London on 3 May a growing consensus appeared to be emerging among the P3+3 to pressure Libya’s actors into parliamentary elections, conscious of the risks posed to Europe of renewed civil war or further deterioration under the status quo. Although parliamentary elections are by no means sufficient to mend Libya’s underlying problems, the P3+3 hope that a vote will help to bring about a cohesive executive and legislature and create an environment more conducive to further change. However, international consensus over Libya has proved just as difficult to forge as its domestic counterpart. The recent French initiative seeks to bring the P3+3’s wish for parliamentary elections together with proposals for constitutional changes, presidential elections and a legitimisation of the national military structure created by Egypt that is centred around institutionalising General Haftar’s Libyan National Army, based in the east of the country. This would allow Haftar to become the head of this new national military structure, under the elected civilian authority. National Electoral Commission will also have to publicly demonstrate that the new registrations have been validated effectively to prevent fraud. Furthermore, the high number of internally displaced persons means that the authorities need to find ways to allow them to vote outside of their constituency, a difficult logistical task considering the lack of formal registration and the fears some have for their safety once they enter into the registration process. Moreover, given the ongoing conflict across many parts of the country it is questionable whether any election could take place on a truly national basis, or whether cities such as Derna and Sebha would be denied their right to participate and whether candidates will be able to register or campaign fairly, fears vindicated by the murder of Salah al-Qatrani in January after announcing his candidacy.
These multiple issues only make it more important to establish a trusted dispute resolution forum. This will in turn mean the electoral law providing procedures for lodging grievances and identifying an acceptable court to hear them. Libyan courts face many threats impinging on their ability to be independent, and so an internationally protected or hosted forum may need to be considered. However, given the sensitivity of the issue any process needs to be fully transparent to ensure maximum trust and minimum opportunity for further disruption
But there remains a further obstacle, one which is itself a result of the last set of elections: many Libyan political and military actors simply do not want change and have been openly hostile to any idea of fresh elections. This reluctance underlies the uncertainty over whether polling can be conducted securely or voters be able to exercise their rights free from duress. Moreover, many Libyans outside of the elite genuinely do not believe that elections at the moment can be anything other than destructive Given the Libyan media’s ability to manipulate public opinion, work is still needed to convince, rather than just coerce, as many people as possible of the need to move towards elections. This can only be done in a meaningful and effective way if it can be shown that the risks have been considered and planned for; a body like the UN Support Mission would be well placed to do this. And the best way of effectively influencing Libya’s political elite is ultimately to subject them to strong public pressure.
Elections in Libya have the capacity to stimulate the change the country needs, but they also have the capacity to be seismically destabilising. The best possible chance of success will come with genuine unity from European actors. This starts with an agreement among the key European actors in particular over what type of elections – parliamentary, presidential or both – it would be most productive to hold, and to work with the UN Support Mission, the HNEC and individual Libyan powerbrokers towards mitigating the many risks involved with hosting elections at present. European actors will also need to find a unified position when dealing with Libyan political and military actors and regional players if they are to lessen the plan’s vulnerability to disruption from spoilers. Recent history has taught us that disunity and confusion on the international scene is inevitably mirrored on the ground in Libya. If 2018’s elections are not to mirror 2014’s then the lessons of the last four years will need to be learned.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.