1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Libya votes

Nils Naumann / bk
June 27, 2014

Moammar Gadhafi brutalized the Libyan people for more than forty years. Now they are about to elect a new parliament for the second time since his fall. Enthusiasm is limited.

An automatic rifle rests atop a white truck
Image: Reuters

Wednesday (25.06.2014) was a hot day in the Libyan capital Tripoli: 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit) in the shade. But Mohammed Akila went out to vote anyway.

"The Libyans want security, stability, and a well-run state, like the rest of the developed world," he said. Akila hopes that electing a new parliament will help to achieve that.

Munira Ashour, a teacher, has also cast her ballot. "I voted so that we can build Libya up again."

But Akila and Ashour are in a minority. It was already clear ahead of the election that people's expectations of politics had dropped significantly. Only 1.5 million of the 3.4 million Libyans have registered to vote. At the first election of the General National Congress two years ago, it was 2.7 million.

This time, according to the electoral commission, 630,000 Libyans cast their vote on Wednesday - not even half of those who registered. The commission blamed the hot weather - but that can only partially explain Libyans' reluctance.

Many people are frustrated. Three years after the fall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the country has fallen into a vortex of violence and political power games. Vote counting is currently underway, and first results are expected soon.

An explosion in Benghazi
Benghazi is at the center of militia fightingImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Democratization paralyzed

The security situation is so tense that polling stations in certain regions were not even opened. According to official statements, this happened in the eastern city of Darnah, a center for Islamists, al-Kufra in the southeast, the scene of regular battles between tribal militias, and the southern city of Sabha.

The revolutionaries, divided among themselves, have not succeeded in forming a functioning democracy in a country that for decades was under an authoritarian regime. A new, democratically legitimate power structure was supposed to be put in place in spring 2013, but Libyans are still waiting for the constitution that they voted for by referendum to be implemented.

The United Nations urged the parliamentary elections to take place as soon as possible, in the hope that this would prevent another escalation of violence. "These elections are an important step in Libya's transformation to a stable democracy," the UN Security Council declared this week.

The interim parliament's mandate ran out in February. When parliamentarians tried to extend their tenure until December, there were street protests, with people accusing the parliamentarians of tolerating Islamist militias and being obsessed with internal divisions.

Militia power

Mattia Toaldo, Libya expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), thinks the parliamentary elections are little more than a partial solution to the crisis in Libya. Much more important would be to find a consensus between all the different power factions in the country. The power in Libya, he says, doesn't lie in the parliament, but with the various militia leaders - and they mainly pursue their own interests.

Following Gadhafi's fall, hardly any of the militias gave up their weapons. According to the International Crisis Group, around 125,000 of the approximately six million Libyans are still armed, and the central government and the official army are still too weak to offer the militias any resistance.

A portrait of Mattia Toaldo
Toaldo says there is good reason to remain optimisticImage: privat

Libyan political scientist Salem Soltan fears that the new parliamentarians do not have the necessary political weight to change the situation in the country. The risk is too great that warlords and militia chiefs will continue to hold the reins of power in the future.

Enemies of balance

A lot of the warlords, says Toaldo, have absolutely no interest in a peaceful solution to the power struggle. One example would be retired Major General Khalifa Haftar, who is currently conducting military operations against Islamist forces in the port town of Benghazi in eastern Libya.

"These forces don't believe in talks or power-sharing," Toaldo said. "They believe they can win the upper hand militarily."

On the other hand, extremist groups like Ansar al-Sharia aren't known for their great love of democracy either. The threat of a civil war is great in eastern Libya.

And yet it is still too early to suggest that the "Arab Spring" has failed, according to Toaldo.

"It's a transitional process and we still don't know where it will end," he said. "We shouldn't forget how destructive 42 years of Gadhafi's reign were."

The country has no institutions, no parties, no independent media, no civil society. All that takes time, he says.

"What Libya does have is natural resources. And I don't just mean oil, but also the large, well-educated, and dynamic diaspora. So we should remain optimistic."