Without strong political will, Libya’s elections uncertain

Within the HoR there exists deep opposition to both elections and the proposed constitution.
Sunday 19/08/2018
A police officer stands inside the building of High National Elections Commission in Tripoli. (AP)
Mounting uncertainty. A police officer stands inside the building of High National Elections Commission in Tripoli. (AP)

Plans for Libya’s referendum on a new constitution on September 16 followed by parliamentary and presidential elections in December are in disarray following the decision by the House of Representatives (HoR) to again delay a vote on the issue.

The president of the Tobruk-based HoR, Ageela Saleh, was among the four key Libyan leaders who agreed in May to the electoral timetable proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron.

The other three were Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the internationally recognised Presidency Council in Tripoli; Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, based in the east; and the State Council’s Muslim Brotherhood President Khalid al-Mishri.

For that timetable to be honoured, the HoR must pass laws allowing the referendum and elections to take place. Under pressure from the United Nations, France and other countries, Saleh had said a referendum law would be in place by the end of July.

It did not happen. The decision was first deferred until August 12 and now, although the HoR spokesman claims the law enjoys broad support, it has been postponed until after Eid al-Adha. The HoR is unlikely to reconvene before September 3. A referendum less than two weeks later is almost impossible.

That is precisely what a powerful section of the HoR membership wants, including, it is thought, Saleh.

Within the HoR there exists deep opposition to both elections and the proposed constitution. Opposition to the constitution is particularly fierce across eastern Libya, with many of the area’s representatives objecting to the potential blueprint of a centralised state. The country’s ethnic minorities — the Amazigh, Tuareg and Tebu — have also voiced opposition to the move. The Amazigh have said they would boycott any referendum.

However, under the conditions in Libya’s current constitution, adopted during the revolution in 2011, the HoR is unable to amend the new constitution drawn up by the elected Constitution Drafting Assembly. Rather, it must be left to the Libyan people to approve or reject the document. All the HoR is constitutionally allowed to do is pass legislation enabling a referendum on it.

Unable to amend the document, its opponents in the HoR tried to prevent the referendum by causing procedural delays to the law approving it or, if there must be one, ensuring it fails.

One article in the proposed referendum law inserted by opponents requires that a two-thirds majority must be reached in each of the three historic regions of Libya — Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. If it fails in one, if fails in all. If the referendum law is passed with the article in it, the proposed constitution will almost certainly fail in Cyrenaica.

In any event, there is no guarantee that when the HoR reconvenes in September it will not find further cause for procrastination.

However, Libya does not need a new constitution for elections to take place; it was the 2011 Constitutional Declaration under which the 2012 and 2014 elections took place.

Under the 2014 constitutional amendment that resulted in the HoR being elected, there was to be a presidential election. However, that vote was suspended by the newly elected HoR, which conferred on itself the presidential powers set out in the 2014 amendment.

Lawyers say the HoR could simply revoke that decision and announce a date, at least for presidential elections. Some say it could be done in a declaration by the HoR president himself but Saleh, despite his claims to support elections, is widely seen as one of the chief blockers to fresh polls.

Of the other three leaders, Mishri is mostly in favour. He and his colleagues in the Muslim Brotherhood see the elections as their route to power.

So, too, do supporters of the old regime, who hope that Libya’s former dictator’s son, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, will stand for the presidency.

Given the level of despair among Libyans, it is thought that Qaddafi could win a good percentage of the vote, perhaps even enough to win. However, he remains the phantom presence in Libyan politics. His failure to appear in public after a year of supposed freedom from captivity in Zintan fuelled rumours that something is seriously wrong, either that he is not free or that he has gone mad.

Sarraj also claims to want elections. He has given the country’s electoral authority constant public encouragement, as well as funding the organisation of any upcoming polls. However, as with Saleh, there are doubts over his intentions. Certainly, if presidential and parliamentary elections were to go ahead, there is no chance he would be reappointed head of government. An election would be the end of his political career.

Haftar appears to favour elections much more than he had previously. In an interview earlier this month, Haftar said current political institutions, including the HoR, were not working. Elections represented the best solution to Libya’s political crisis and that the country needed to have a new elected president and parliament by the beginning of 2019.

Libyans were “eager” to have elections, he declared, criticising those — he did not name them — he said were deliberately blocking them so that they could remain in office.

He was particularly critical of Italy and called for the removal of the Italian ambassador after the country said elections should be deferred until stability was achieved across Libya.

Without a strong political will, the likelihood is that, not only will no referendum take place next month, there will be no elections in December, either.

12