Libyans voted yesterday 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 the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi.
About 2.8 million people were eligible to vote for 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. The council last week 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 was 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. Protests delayed elections in some towns and shut-in oil exports.
“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.”
Voter turnout was 60 percent, Al Jazeera television reported today, citing Nouri Al-Abbar, the head of the country’s election commission.
The election shows Libya’s future is in the hands of the people after being “in the grip of a dictator” for more than 40 years, President Barack Obama said in a e-mailed statement yesterday from the White House.
The Libyan people have reached “another milestone on their extraordinary transition to democracy,” he said.
Libya’s oil exports have been cut by about 300,000 barrels a day as protesters block oil terminals in the country’s eastern province, the head of the state-run National Oil Corp. Nuri Berruien said yesterday. Protesters have been occupying the ports of Ras Lanuf, Al-Sidra and Al-Harouj in the oil-rich eastern province of Cyrenaica since July 5 to bring attention to their claims of marginalization.
A helicopter carrying Libyan election materials was shot at by gunmen in the eastern city of Benghazi, Al-Abbar said. The incident at the airport killed one person and wounded two, the official said July 6.
Among the 142 parties and 3,700 candidates vying for seats were Islamist groups seeking to emulate the success of their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt. Election results will be released over the coming days.
“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.”
Protests delayed elections in the eastern town of Brega and also in Azizia, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, the head of the European Union elections monitoring team in Libya, said at a polling station in Tripoli yesterday. Libyan security forces killed a person and injured two others during clashes at a polling station in the coastal city of Ajdabiya, Deputy Interior Minister Omar al-Khadrawi said yesterday.
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. It’s targeting an average 1.5 million barrels a day this month and capacity is “technically” back at pre-war levels of 1.6 million barrels a day, Berruien said. Companies operating there include Total SA, Repsol YPF SA and Eni SpA.
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. In the east, where the uprising against Qaddafi started, residents voted to take control of their administrative affairs, sparking fears of a complete secession.
Three Libyan ports in the country’s eastern province of Cyrenaica have been unable to export oil because of protests, Arabian Gulf Oil Co. spokesman Abdul Jalil said. Militants have forced the closing of three oil refineries in the country’s east, the Associated Press reported July 6, citing rebel commander Fadlallah Haroun.
“The people of Cyrenaica closed the harbors in an attempt to put pressure on the local authorities,” Bubaker Bayera, spokesman for the self-declared Cyrenaica region, said. “We are not calling for civil war or separation, but we need the authorities to pay attention to us.”
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 members of the African Tibu tribe clashed with local Arab forces.
The Tibu later threatened to declare autonomy and have said they may boycott the vote after roughly 15 percent of their voters were disqualified. That followed an election commission ruling stating that they didn’t 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.
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.
“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.”