As deadlines are missed, presidential election in Libya mired in uncertainty

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  • Khalifa Haftar
    Libyan military officer

With just one week to go before the official date scheduled for the presidential election, Libya remains plunged in uncertainty: The final list of candidates has yet to be published and the electoral calendar seems untenable.

The campaign for the presidential election in Libya has still not kicked off, though 2.5 million voters are supposed to go to the polls on December 24, and the publication of the official list of candidates, expected at least 15 days before the election, was postponed indefinitely on December 11 by the High National Electoral Commission (HNEC).

The Libyan election was intended to be the culmination of a lengthy UN-sponsored political process, after a decade of chaos that followed the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime in 2011, and fratricidal struggles between two rival camps, in the west and east.

With just a few days until the original election date, the new elections law, passed in September, still does not enjoy unanimous support in the country. The text of the new law was not passed by the parliament, but instead was ratified directly by Aguila Saleh Issa, speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives and an ally of one of the main candidates, Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who controls the east and part of southern Libya.

The divisive law was notably rejected by several political forces who accused it of being tailor-made for Haftar, as it allows him to be a presidential candidate but also to return to his military post if he is not elected.

These factors contribute to a state of confusion in the country, suggesting that the electoral calendar, which also provides for legislative elections in January (initially planned for December), will not be respected. A postponement is now more than likely, although the Libyan government claimed as recently as last Sunday that it was "ready" to organise the election.

"The government has not skimped on either its funding or its efforts to support the HNEC. We have the opportunity to make December 24 a historic day," said Ramadan Abu Jnah, who has been acting head of government since Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah announced he was running for president.

‘The climate is not rationally conducive to holding elections’

“It is obvious that these elections are now extremely compromised given the political, legal and security situation in Libya," said Hafed al-Ghwell, a Libya specialist and researcher at the Foreign Policy Institute (FPI) of Johns Hopkins University, speaking with FRANCE 24. “The current climate is not conducive to holding elections of this kind, and the main candidates do not seem ready to participate in a ballot in a serious and fair manner."

"The international community pretends to deal with this country as if it were a stable state,” added al-Ghwell. “But this is an illusion because there is no sense of state in Libya, there are no institutions, there are only rival camps and militias that face each other."

For al-Ghwell, neither side is ready to recognise the results of the election. "You have on one side a field marshal who is the head of a state within a state, Haftar, who doesn't seem ready to accept any other result than his own victory," he continued. “On the other side, other groups have warned that they will not recognise Haftar if he wins."

In addition to Haftar and Dbeibah, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for "crimes against humanity", is also among the dozens of presidential candidates. His candidacy was initially rejected for not complying with the electoral law, before finally being accepted.

Al-Ghwell believes that attempting to hold the election in December under the current conditions could plunge Libya back into violence. The UN envoy for Libya, Jan Kubis, threw in the towel a month before the presidential election.

“The international community has been pushing for the election to take place on the scheduled date without taking into account the reality on the ground," said al-Ghwell. “I think that if the election does eventually happen in this context, we should not expect it to bring stability. On the contrary, it risks complicating the situation in the country even more."

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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