The reasons behind the delays in Libya's 'impossible' presidential vote

·4-min read

After days of uncertainty, Libyan authorities have postponed the presidential election just 48 hours before it was set to begin on December 24. A new date in January looks unlikely to be approved, leaving the country paralysed by tensions between rival groups who disagree on electoral law.

Few will be surprised that Libya’s presidential elections have been postponed two days before they were set to take place on December 24.

Yet as the timeline for organising the vote became increasingly unrealistic, authorities seemed unwilling to confirm the news. It fell to the country’s High National Electoral Commission (HNEC) to “suggest” on December 22 that the vote be pushed back by one month to January 24.

Despite this proposal coming “after consultation” with parliament, the latter has yet to confirm the new date.

Parliament urged take responsibility

In a statement the HNEC distanced itself from delays which have built up in previous months, such as the release of the official list of candidates being postponed indefinitely on December 11. Instead, it blamed “circumstances out of the control of those who are in charge of the process”.

It also urged parliament to take responsibility, publically asking it to adopt “the necessary measures in order to remove constraints from the electoral process”, including addressing “inadequate electoral legislation”.

Earlier that morning, a parliamentary commission charged with overseeing the election gave a brief acknowledgement of the “impossibility” of opening polling stations on the planned date, without giving more information.

"The question of postponement has become a hot potato that each side is trying to throw to the other, whether that’s parliament or the HNEC”, political commentator Faysal Bouraika told FRANCE 24’s Arabic channel.

At the heart of much disagreement is Libya’s electoral law which is supposed to define the rules for the historic presidential vote, but has instead become a reason for delaying the election. Rather than being voted through by MPs, the new law was authorised directly by head of parliament, Aguila Saleh, with some saying that it unfairly favours Saleh’s ally, the election candidate field marshall Khalifa Haftar who controls the east and part of south Libya.

>> Libya's Haftar, controversial military commander with eye on presidency

"Parliament itself threw a spanner in the works of the process by adopting electoral laws without any debate,” said Faysal Bouraika. “That’s why the HNEC has put the ball in parliament’s court by mentioning constraints to the electoral process that only parliament can resolve.”

Is a January election date likely?

Meanwhile long-standing divisions between the east and west of the country are entrenched to the point that either side is liable to reject the results of an election, and there is no guarantee they would agree to accept the result if a new election date were announced in January.

“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,” Hafed al-Ghwell, a Libya specialist and researcher at the Foreign Policy Institute (FPI) of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, recently told FRANCE 24

Polarising candidates are not helping matters either. Along with Khalifa Haftar and interim prime minister, Abdelhamid Dbeibah, one of the dozens of potential candidates is Seif al-Islam Kadhafi, the son of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity.

Faysal Bouraika says it will take more than a few weeks to resolve these issues, especially as the interim government will lose its mandate on December 24 - when the presidential election was meant to take place. “We can expect that parliament will postpone the election until after January 24 because there is the question, behind the scenes, of forming a new government and a new presidential council for the next six months to a year.”

This means continuing the lengthy political process towards self-governance which has been overseen by the UN since a ceasefire was declared in Libya just over 12 months ago after a decade of fighting following the death of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

As political uncertainty continues, armed militia were deployed in Tripoli on December 21 raising fears that tensions over the election may spark a return to violence.

Meanwhile the prospect of an end to instability seems increasingly like a pipe dream for potential voters and for members of the international community who had hoped for the election to go ahead on December 24 as planned.

In these circumstances, Faysal Bouraika said, “beyond the election being delayed, we have to think of Libyans and the 2.5 million voters who were ready to participate on December 24, which would have been a historic day. They must be very disappointed.”

(This article is a translation of the original in French)

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