Editorial Board

A Guide to the Libyan Elections

Libya holds its first free elections in almost 50 years on Saturday. Prepare to be confused, and try not to be too dismayed by the results.

The vote has been delayed once already, from June 19; federalists in the oil-rich east of the country have called for a boycott and stormed election commission centers; Islamist militants recently attacked Western targets, including the U.S. and British consuls; and international monitoring will be light, limited to a few dozen people from the European Union, the U.S. Carter Center and the Arab League.

In other words, this will be at best a messy process -- less than what Barack Obama’s administration and other Western governments might have wished to see from their showcase military intervention in the Middle East.

Still, many of Libya’s problems are due to the lack of legitimacy of the National Transitional Council, the self-appointed body that has run the country since last year’s uprising, and that’s something Saturday’s elections can help to fix. A successful vote is a vital prerequisite for addressing Libya’s fundamental weakness: the lack of effective, trusted institutions left behind after 42 years of arbitrary rule by Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.

There are some causes for hope. First, Libya has already had successful municipal elections in Misrata and Benghazi. Second, the national vote is part of a sound plan. The 200-seat parliament that’s chosen will replace the council, appoint a prime minister and select a 60-member constituent assembly to draft a constitution, which will then be put to a referendum. Third, the council’s members pushed hard to keep on schedule an election that will eliminate their jobs. All good news, particularly when compared with, say, the behavior of Egypt’s transitional rulers.

Another point: The mere fact that Libya’s ruling council succeeded in registering 80 percent of the potential electorate from a standing start is a sign of the enthusiasm among Libyans for governing themselves.

On the economic side, Libya has oil. Production was back to about 1.45 million barrels a day in May, according to the International Energy Agency, compared with about 1.77 million barrels before the uprising. Full recovery is expected by the end of the year. With a population of less than 7 million, Libya was one of Africa’s wealthiest nations per capita, but little oil money reached ordinary citizens under Qaddafi. As much as oil revenue can trigger disputes and destabilize Libya, it can also be a powerful tool for any new government that chooses to be less rapacious.

So what about the Islamists? As in Egypt and Tunisia, they are Libya’s best-organized political force and likely to do well. Libya’s Islamists, however, are a comparatively heterodox and divided bunch. Libya’s tensions are more local, in some areas tribal, than religious.

Libya’s future will be made or broken by the ability of the dominant Tripoli region to compromise with the rest of the country over the distribution of power and control of oil resources. The transitional council already made some concessions, including an agreement that the new constitutional assembly be drawn equally from the three regions. One has to take this as an encouraging sign.

France, the U.K., the U.S. and others involved are rightly keeping a low profile ahead of the vote. After the election, however, Libya will need more concerted help in institution building. In particular, it will need technical support from model oil exporters such as Norway and institutions such as the World Bank to ensure that oil revenue is accounted for and well used. Any new government should make an early priority of joining international efforts such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, aimed at opening the sector to public scrutiny. Turkey, the U.S. and others should also step up support for retraining an estimated 125,000 militia members and absorbing some of them into the police and the armed forces.

As the International Monetary Fund has said, Libya’s transitional government responded to halted oil production and mass (armed) unemployment by handing out public-sector jobs and wages as a form of welfare. The policy was understandable, but it’s unsustainable. Fortunately, Libya has the resources to invest in diversifying its economy and creating private sector jobs beyond those in hydrocarbons.

If Saturday’s elections are messy, but largely free and with wide participation, they should be seen as a starting point to accelerate efforts to build institutions in Libya. That’s the best way to ensure that the country, and by extension its neighbors, are spared the biggest pitfalls of the Arab Spring.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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