Election campaigning is set to end in Libya as the country readies itself for its first free national poll in more than forty years.
The elections will be closely watched around the world by both supporters and critics of NATO’s bombing campaign that helped underpin an Arab Spring uprising which ended Gaddafi’s dictatorship and finally claimed his life.
As last-minute preparations were underway across the country on Thursday, there remained concerns over the possibility of violence when Libyans finally head to the polls on Saturday.
For many of the 2,8 million registered voters, excitement about a first taste of democracy is mingled with fear that it will be hijacked by armed groups, often with regional loyalties, who have flourished amid prevailing lawlessness.
On Thursday, a fire ravaged a depot containing electoral material in the eastern Libyan city of Ajdabiya, an official of the national electoral commission said on Thursday.
“The fire happened before sunrise. All the material, including ballot boxes and ballots, was destroyed,” said the official, adding that the cause of the fire was unknown.
But he said backers of federalism, some of them armed, “had tried to attack the depot [on Wednesday] and residents of the city parried the attack by forming a human shield around the warehouse”.
The head of the electoral commission in Benghazi, Jamal Bugrin, confirmed the information, warning that “if a solution is not found today [Thursday] to replace the material, voting would have to be delayed in that district”.
While the election is designed to produce a government with a stronger mandate to rule than the current ex-rebel National Transitional Council (NTC), the credibility of the result will be questionable if voters are too scared to turn out or if post-vote disputes degenerate into gun battles among rival factions.
In some areas, such as the isolated southern district of Kufra in the Saharan desert, tribal clashes are so fierce that election observers will be unable to visit, and some question whether the vote can proceed in certain areas there.
Voters will select a 200-member assembly that will choose a cabinet to replace the self-appointed interim government, represented by the National Transitional Council.
The new chamber will also pick a new prime minister and help draft a constitution aimed at turning Libya into a unified, stable state.
Many of the 2,500 candidates have strong Islamist agendas. Once the country’s new constitution is drafted, a referendum will be held and, if it establishes a parliamentary system, a full legislative poll will be held within six months.
Less than a year after rebel fighters overran the capital Tripoli with little resistance, Libya is a country enjoying freedoms that would have been unimaginable during the four decades before the uprising, but which are mitigated by instability and sporadic violence.
While Tripoli can go for days without disturbances, turf wars between heavily-armed rival groups can explode into gunfights within seconds, while regional tensions that were suppressed under Gaddafi are now dangerously exposed.
Threat of violence
Last week’s storming of an election office in the eastern city of Benghazi by armed protesters demanding greater powers for the region showed not only how far Libya has to go to foster national unity, but also underscored the real risk of unrest on voting day.
“The Libyan authorities should not make the mistake of underestimating their ability to disrupt the political process,” the International Crisis Group think tank said of such protests, arguing that eastern demands for greater autonomy must sooner or later be addressed.
“The Libyan authorities should not make the mistake of underestimating their ability to disrupt the political process“
– International Crisis Group
The weakness of the police and the army was demonstrated only last month when fighters occupied the runway at Tripoli’s international airport for hours after they mistakenly feared their leader had been seized by security forces.
Yet while such incidents will do little to encourage potential investors in a country with Africa’s largest proven oil reserves, many observers argue that Libya has bounced back from the conflict more quickly than expected.
“The basic elements of life are continuing in Libya,” UN envoy Ian Martin told the Reuters news agency in a June interview.
“When you put it in the context of Libya and in the context of other post-conflict countries, the glass is half full rather than half empty,” he added.