“If the High National Election Commission of Libya doesn’t receive the Referendum Law from the House of Representatives before July 31, we will not be able to prepare the referendum on new Constitution, planned for the end of October. This means, anticipated elections in December will also be delayed”, I was told by Dr. Emad Assayeh, Chairman of the High National Election Commission of Libya, at our meeting in Tripoli, last week.
A referendum on the Constitution is the key for Libya to move from a transitional to the permanent political stage. Since 2011 revolution, the country went through three transitional phases: soon after the fall of Gaddafi it established a National Transitional Council that prepared the ground for the election of the General National Congress of Libya (GNC), and after elections in 2014, the formation of the House of Representatives that convened in Tobruk. Political disputes over 2014 elections further fractured the political scene in Libya forcing the UN to mediate a compromised solution resulting in so-called Skhirat agreement reached in Morocco on December 17, 2015, that created the Government of National Accord albeit not recognized by the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk to the present day. The Skhirat agreement kept the HoR and added the High Council of State (HCS), an essentially consultative body made up of the GNC. Clearly, to break through the political stalemate, Libya needs a new Constitution that will be binding for all. It took three years for the elected parliamentarian committee to draft a new Constitution already rejected by many as being partial to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.
According to Article No. 183 of the new draft Constitution, Libyan legislators will have 90 days to issue election law to enable elections; one to elect a new President, another to elect a new Parliament, and third and the last – to elect (for the first time) a Senate of Libya. Article 183 also says that these elections, starting from the day of the enforcement of the law, suggests they can be conducted together or separately, but within 240 days. The Electoral Commission has sent a suggestion to the HoR in Tobruk for the voting ballots to be assigned to political parties and not to independent candidates, but no answer came yet. On election day(s), electoral commission will have to hire around 30.000 people for polling stations and vote counting. These are envisioned to be school teachers, since the elections will take place at schools as in previous elections, throughout the country. Recruiting teachers will not be a hard task given that there are about 600.000 teachers currently on government payrolls, way beyond the country’s needs. There are about 2.3 million government employees for a population of about 6 million people, a system promoted by the Gaddafi regime that for decades cracked down on the private sector in favor of a centralized public sector.
If political agreement on the new Constitution draft is reached and a referendum on it holds, the electoral commission plans to invite international observers to monitor the elections, but security remains a huge problem. Government plans to mobilize army and police, but these forces have limited capacity compared to a number of powerful militias existing in the country. It is not clear what (if any) role militias will play in the elections to come. A political agreement between all political actors (if reached) will greatly limit any possible negative role of militias in respect to the elections as they all are politically well connected. Ensuring strong security is a precondition to a successful election, and people in Libya will need such reassurances for them to go out and vote in significant numbers. In the 2014 elections, Aguila Saleh, the elected head of HoR, won with only 900 votes.
In case Libyan political leaders reject the new constitution draft, or it fails to secure the necessary majority at the referendum, the country will have to go through a fourth transitional phase and modify Article 30 of the Constitutional Declaration (enacted in 2011 by the National Transitional Council) that currently governs Libya. This has the potential to deepen existing divisions and lead Libya to a completely lawless state. The United Nations is securing technical equipment to include data security, computers, servers, etc. that should arrive at the election commission offices in Libya any day. ISIS bombing of the Electoral Commission headquarters last May did not hinder the spirit of this institution of 270 employees. The new building is being prepared now in Tripoli, but reparations are also well underway to fix the damaged building from the May bombing. These are positive signs in an otherwise uncertain action by the HoR which must enact legislation for the referendum on the draft constitution along with the election law.
Libya is in dire need of economic reforms to move from a socialist Gaddafi system to a modern free market economy and from political divisions and chaos in post-Gaddafi Libya to security and stability. Without new elections that can potentially end political divisions, little progress can be made. There are no transparency measures in place and corruption is very high. Currency manipulation with issued letter of credits by the central bank give immense fortunes for a select few that are aligned with various political power blocks, enabling them to multiply their gains 5 times, taking advantage of the high discretionary between the official central bank rate at which letters of credit are issued and the parallel market rate. Officially, Libyan dinar stands at 1.42 against the dollar, but in the black market, this exchange runs at 1.6 to the dollar, at a minimum. Many unscrupulous merchants and militias bigwigs with clout can have letters of credit issued at the official rate but cash it at the black-market rate, often importing nothing or shady merchandise, that included even rocks and salt “imported” in containers. Economic reforms in Libya are further seriously hindered by occasional militia fighting; recent one when Jadhran’s militia launched an attack on the oil field terminals (that was soon after successfully repelled by Haftar’s LNA forces) yet resulted in serious oil storage damages and hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and lost revenue. People remember well the outcome of 2014 elections that resulted in fighting destroying Tripoli International Airport and almost the entire fleet of Libyan airlines, forcing diplomats to leave Tripoli, and bringing the country to the brink of civil war. The reconciliation process is moving forward but is also obstructed in various forms. Most Libyans are tired of fighting and violence, and above all, tired of very poor living conditions as result. Many believe that more dialogue and more reconciliations to improve the security conditions are needed before the country can embrace a new election. Various efforts are being made, but animosities and political calculations run deep. Divisions have resulted in polarization between the eastern part of Libya (called Barqa) controlled by General Haftar, and the western part where the GNA and HSC are based, still largely controlled by militias. As an example, Khalid Al-Mishri, President of the High Council of State made a bold positive move offering to visit the HoR in Tobruk, unconditionally, in an effort to jump-start the dialogue, but Tobruk rejected the idea. The international community has yet to formulate effective measures to help overcome mistrust amongst the politicians.
Time has practically run out for the elections to be held in December, what the French president Macron pushed for at the Paris Summit last May when he met the four main political/military leaders. While they agreed on certain principals, they did not sign a formal accord, and some have distanced themselves from the non-binding declaration, upon returning home to Libya. This month, President Sarraj allocated 66 million Libyan Dinars (about $47 million) for the election commission. Last week’s French foreign minister Le Drian’s visit to Tripoli committing one million dollars towards the elections what is a step forward but more robust international effort to push for the political agreement on the new Constitution is required. Italy and France, the two most involved EU countries in Libya are at odds over the timing of the elections. While France is pushing for a December, Italy is against it, arguing that more security is needed. Unfortunately, this disagreement came out in public and is being used by some in Libya to stall the negotiation process. A unified voice by the EU and the United States, with a clear and realistic time frame, with a deadline in which an election law should be enacted by the HoR, and the draft constitution to be put to a referendum, should be worked out, for elections to happen in 2019. First and foremost, ensuring security for the elections in the country is essential so that Libyans can freely express their will at the polls and in big numbers, without fear of terrorist attacks.
This is the minimum that the ordinary Libyans, suffering daily from a dysfunctional system, are rightly asking for. A unified government under a new constitution, that will work together, engage in the economic, educational, and health reforms, to end the misery people of Libya are enduring for too long.