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Blasts at Poll Booths as Libya Picks Panel to Draft Charter

Feb. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Libyans returned to the polls to elect a committee to draft a new constitution, intended as a milestone in the nation’s post-revolution transition marred by violence, a minority group’s boycott and low voter registration.

Hours before voting began, explosions hit five polling stations in the eastern city of Derna, where Islamists are active, the state-run Libya News Agency said. Armed men entered one center in the same city, ordering everyone out and calling them infidels. Libya has been gripped by violence since Muammar Qaddafi was deposed and killed more than two years ago. About 53,000 police and soldiers deployed to secure 1,576 main polling stations and thousands of smaller ones.

The committee appeared headed for trouble even before voting began. Only about 1 million of 6 million voters registered to cast ballots, about a third of the 2.8 million who registered for 2012 parliamentary elections. In addition, Libya’s ethnic Amazigh, or Berbers, are boycotting the process and aren’t fielding candidates among the 649 contenders.

“We were hoping for at least the same number of Libyans who registered last time,” Nuri Al Abbar, the head of the High National Elections Commission, said in an interview in Tripoli. “People are frustrated with the entire political process and its results.”

The low registration reflected the electorate’s weariness of escalating violence by militias challenging the central government’s authority, plunging oil output, high unemployment and an economy struggling to rebound years after Qaddafi’s exit. Libya has Africa’s largest proven reserves of conventional crude.

Militia Demand

Just this week, one militia demanded that lawmakers cede power or face arrest. While it didn’t carry out the threat, parliament speaker Nuri Busahmein denounced it as an attack on the state’s legitimacy.

At one central Tripoli voting station, the first ballot was cast about four hours after polls opened at 8 a.m. local time, Ali Shebani, the official in charge, said in an interview.

Voters didn’t know much about those running for seats the committee, he said. Some “just leave their ballots blank or empty.”

The vote is being held after some lawmakers from the east demanded the charter be drafted by a more inclusive body.

The Amazigh and other minority groups, including the Tabu and Tuareg, are boycotting the vote because they want the panel to vote by consensus, not by majority, on Libya’s official languages, flag and identity, to ensure they are represented in the new charter.

Women Members

The commission is to include six women and six representatives of minorities. Initial results are due within 10 days, with final results slated to be released about 12 days later, according to Al Abbar.

Libya’s central government has been assailed for failing to take the country forward, and Prime Minister Ali Zaidan is under pressure from lawmakers to step down.

The premier was temporarily kidnapped from a Tripoli hotel in October and militias have repeatedly laid siege to government buildings, including the parliament, in a bid to secure better services and resource distribution for their respective regions.

Capping the chaos is the closure of ports in the oil-rich east, campaigns for semi-autonomy in that same region as well as in the south, and a spate of assassinations targeting senior officials.

“We need to find jobs for the youth, we need to improve our lives, but we can’t do that with the lack of security,” Abdul-Karim Nwigi, a university student in Tripoli, said after casting his ballot.

To contact the reporters on this story: Mariam Sami in Tripoli at msami2@bloomberg.net; Saleh Sarrar in Tripoli at ssarar@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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