Why Libya’s upcoming election raises more questions than answers

Analysts say the real test of Libya’s fledgeling democracy is not whether the December 24 election can be held, but what happens after it.

Renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar signs his candidacy papers for the presidential election in the city of Benghazi [File: Khalifa Haftar's Media Office via Reuters]

Ten years after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya remains a fragmented country with a conflict between eastern and western regions involving a vast number of militias and foreign fighters.

The state is desperately attempting to install a much-needed set of democratic and political institutions while the situation within the country remains highly volatile.

Amid this turmoil, the presidential election is due to take place on December 24. Moreover, the list of candidates already raises far more questions than answers.

For one, there is renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar, self-proclaimed field marshal and controversial ruler in eastern Libya who submitted his candidacy for the presidential vote.

He does not seek power or status, Haftar said in a televised speech. His only concern is to lead the Libyan people in a decisive phase “to fame, progress and prosperity”.

His words appear as somewhat of a travesty. As of April 2019, Haftar waged a 14-month war against the west of the country that killed more than 2,500 people.

The veneration he enjoyed in the east is also crumbling. Many who initially enthusiastically supported his campaign against the capital Tripoli were shocked by the high death toll of their troops.

How Haftar can unite hopelessly ruptured Libya is a mystery to many analysts.

Imad el-Anis, associate professor in international relations at Nottingham Trent University, told Al Jazeera: “Haftar’s candidacy has come under much scrutiny and it is possible, maybe even probable, that he will be disqualified at the next round of vetting – either for his role in what many see as war crimes stemming from the 2019-20 assault on Tripoli that his forces led, or if it is proven that he has US citizenship.

“Haftar denies the latter, but there have been rumours about this for a long time now, and if he does have dual citizenship, he will not be eligible to run in the election.”

However, his citizenship is only one of the encumbrances in Haftar’s way.

“He is too divisive a figure, and I would not expect him to carry much of the vote in western Libya at least, rendering it unlikely he could ever secure sufficient votes.”

With that said, Haftar has one route to power, el-Anis added.

“If he is allowed to run and the results are so mixed that no one comes out with anywhere near a majority, which is also very possible, he could end up either in a kingmaker role or even negotiate and barter his way to office himself,” he said.

“Ultimately, though, I expect a less controversial and perhaps less well-known figure to emerge as the victor of the elections as a sort of compromise between different factions and interests.”

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi registers as a presidential candidate at the registration centre in Sebha [File: Khaled al-Zaidy via Reuters]

Arguably, Haftar’s most prominent competitor is Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the second eldest son of the former ruler.

After his father’s death, he was captured by militiamen from Zintan in Ubari, in the country’s southwest, put into prison, and released in 2017. Since then, the International Criminal Court has been demanding extradition to try him for crimes against humanity.

However, extradition is unlikely to occur. In 2015, the Libyan Dawn militia, the military arm of the Muslim Brotherhood’s parliament, put him on trial, sentenced him to death, and ordered the Zintan fighters to transfer him to Tripoli for execution.

The Zintan militia did not comply and instead released him only two years after the death sentence was handed down.

Excluded from vote

As of now, Libya’s election commission excluded Gaddafi from the vote. However, the decision of the electoral commission is not yet final. Gaddafi still has the option to appeal the decision.

Twenty-four other applicants were also excluded from the election commission because they did not meet the conditions for candidacy.

However, el-Anis said even if he were allowed to run, his chances would be limited.

“He aimed to run on a platform of nostalgia, the hope that people would remember the ‘good old days’ when things were more stable. I would not expect many outside of Gaddafi loyalist segments of the voting population to vote for him.”

While Haftar and Gaddafi might be the most prominent names in the race, the most promising one is somewhat flying under the radar.

“Parliamentary Speaker Aguila Saleh is the most likely consensus candidate. He is well-known enough due to his current position, which is about as neutral as you see in current Libyan politics, although that does not make him particularly objective, but also does not have as much baggage and controversies to contest with compared to candidates like General Haftar,” el-Anis said.

Aguila Saleh is the most likely ‘consensus’ candidate [File: Costas Baltas/Reuters]

In general, however, the election is displaying some progress.

“At the very least, the whole process is demonstrating that dialogue and engagement between different groups that have previously been extremely hostile to each other is possible and can lead to national level consensus and processes,” el-Anis said.

The real test, however, is not whether the election can be held, but what happens after it, he said.

“Will the majority of the key stakeholders accept the results, and will there be acquiescence to the leadership of whoever ‘wins’ by those who ‘lose’? I imagine this will be difficult, and whatever the outcome, I would not expect the leadership that is formed to see out its full term before a major reshuffle or even further elections take place,” said el-Anis.

Holding elections while foreign fighters and militias continue to challenge the state, electoral decisions, the judiciary, and just about everything official institutions are saying are deeply problematic, Simon Mabon, professor of international politics at Lancaster University, told Al Jazeera.

“It is commendable that the elites are trying to conduct this election and attempt to reassert democratic control over Libya that is still at war with itself,” he said.

“However, a successful election and significant steps into the right direction remain incredibly challenging, especially without genuine peace-building processes, trust-building processes, and periods of reconciliation – all the mechanisms one would expect from a post-conflict society.

“Libya is trying to enter a post-conflict context, whilst the conflict is still raging.”

And given this status quo, “it is hard to see the election ending positively”, Mabon concluded.

Source: Al Jazeera