Post-Qaddafi Libya Has First National Vote in Four Decades

Libyans vote today in their first free national election in more than 40 years amid political infighting and threats of a boycott that may hamper efforts to rebuild after last year’s uprising against Muammar Qaddafi.

About 2.8 million registered voters will choose a 200-seat General National Conference that will pick a Cabinet to replace the ruling Transitional National Council, which has struggled to restore order and revive the economy since the end of Qaddafi’s 42-year rule. Two days ago, the council stripped the future assembly of its powers to name a committee to write a constitution, saying that Libyans will choose the 60-member panel in another election.

The pre-election period has been marked by the eastern region’s push for a measure of autonomy and the NTC’s failure to wrest power from regional militias that spearheaded the NATO-backed uprising. Fighting among the armed groups this year has undermined security and discouraged local businesses.

“All the businesses and industries are waiting for the elections to finish,” Fawzy Shebany, the general manager of real estate investment, catering and shipping firm Al-Madina Holdings Co., said in a July 1 interview in Tripoli. “No contracts are being awarded at all. This is affecting every sector.”

A helicopter carrying Libyan election materials was shot at by gunmen in the eastern city of Benghazi, said Nouri Al-Abbar, the head of the country’s election commission. The incident at the airport killed one person and wounded two, the official said yesterday.

Campaign Posters

Among the 142 parties and 3,700 candidates vying for seats are Islamist groups seeking to emulate the success of their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt. Polls opened at 8 a.m. local time and are slated to close 12 hours later.

“I am so excited about the elections, finally we get to choose,” said Nader Al Aswed, former militia fighter from a Tripoli suburb. “It’s been beautiful to see the campaign posters everywhere. Before only Qaddafi’s face was allowed.”

While the new assembly will no longer be able to appoint the body to write a new constitution, it will decide how to organize the election to choose it, NTC spokesman Salah Al Torhouni told reporters on July 5.

Libya, the holder of the biggest oil reserves in Africa, boosted crude production to 1.43 million barrels per day last month, close to prewar levels. Companies operating there include Total SA, ConocoPhillips, Repsol YPF SA and Eni SpA.

Oil Exports Halted

The country’s political situation hasn’t matched the pace of the petroleum industry’s revival, with the south joining the oil-rich east in pushing for semi-autonomy.

Three Libyan ports in the country’s eastern province of Cyrenaica are unable to export oil because of protests, Arabian Gulf Oil Co. spokesman Abdul Jalil said. The company’s oil exports aren’t affected by the closures, Jalil said.

Militants in Libya have forced the closing of three oil refineries in the country’s east, the Associated Press reported yesterday, citing a rebel commander. The rebels are seeking to cancel the vote that they say will marginalize the oil-rich east, the AP reported Fadlallah Haroun as saying. The El Brega, Tobruk and Sarir refineries have a combined capacity to process 48,000 barrels a day of crude, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

In the east, where the uprising against Qaddafi started, residents voted to take control of their administrative affairs, sparking fears of a complete secession.

Militia Gunmen

Armed groups have engaged in clashes in the North African country. The transitional authorities sent gunmen belonging to the Zintan and Misrata militias, the two most powerful, to the southern city of Sebha in April to serve as peacekeepers after African Tibu tribe clashed with local Arab forces.

The Tibu later threatened to declare autonomy and have said they may to boycott the vote after roughly 15 percent of their voters were disqualified. That followed an election commission ruling stating that they did not hold Libyan citizenship or valid identification cards, the Libya Herald reported, citing a June 26 decision by election officials.

“The electoral process will undoubtedly be affected by violence, but we believe that the major militias seek to retain influence in the country’s new institutions rather than to overturn them,” Crispin Hawes, director of the Mideast and North Africa program at the Eurasia Group, wrote in an e-mailed note from London.

Among the most powerful parties running are the Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Justice and Construction Party, mimicking events in other countries where the so-called Arab Spring protests toppled leaders.

Islamist Ambitions

In Tunisia, the Islamists gained control of the parliament. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi Nour Party dominated the legislature before it was disbanded and the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi went on to win the presidency.

Hawes said that he expects some of the Islamist parties to do well in the race, while others representing exiled anti-Qaddafi groups probably will fare poorly.

A total of 93 international observers are registered and more than 9,500 representatives of local non-governmental organizations and civil societies are monitoring the vote.

“It’s important for the economy that these elections go ahead and we move on to the next phase” after the revolution, said Husni Bey, the chief executive of the Husni Bey Group, a Tripoli-based importer. “While the private sector and the oil sector are doing well, many other areas of industry and commerce need a kick-start. It’s almost psychological.”

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