- By Mohamed EljarhMohamed Eljarh is a writer for Foreign Policy's Democracy Lab and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter at @Eljarh.
Libyans headed to the polls on Feb. 20 to elect their Constituent Assembly, the body in charge of drafting the country’s constitution. The elections took place amid a deteriorating security situation and deepening political polarization. Only 45 percent of the 1.1 million who registered for the election turned up to cast their votes. That’s less than 14 percent of the eligible voters in the country.
In July 2013, the General National Congress (GNC), Libya’s legislative body, passed an electoral law for elections to the Constituent Assembly, a small but crucial step toward drafting a new constitution. Even so, there were serious questions about the inclusiveness of the overall process. For one thing, the law allocated only six seats for women and only six seats altogether for the three minority groups (the Tebu, Tuareg, and Amazigh/Berbers). This half-hearted attempt to include the minorities in the constitution drafting committee backfired, since it offered no real guarantees and safeguards to ensure their rights. It failed to accommodate the minorities’ narratives and their specific populist issues (such as the constitutional status of Tamazight, the Berber language). The Amazigh and Tebu both boycotted the elections and refused to take part.
A total of 647 candidates registered to run in the assembly elections. In order to protest against the very limited allocation of seats, the Amazigh boycotted the process by refusing to present any candidates. Some Amazigh groups have also disrupted oil and gas installations in the extreme west of the country to call attention to their grievances. The Tebu announced they were boycotting the elections one day before Libyans headed to the polls due to the lack of safeguards and guarantees.
Voter registration reached just over one million voters by the end of the voter registration period on Dec. 31, 2013, which was significantly lower than the 2.7 million voters who registered for the GNC elections in 2012. The sense of apathy and despair is palpable. The Libyan street may choose to express its discontent by generating alternatives that do not involve the ballot box. This extremely low turnout has now prompted a debate in Libya about the legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly.
Initial results announced by the elections commission show that candidates endorsed by the Islamists have lost in Tripoli and Benghazi, the two biggest cities in the country. Militias associated with the Islamists and Federalists might use the low turnout as an excuse to question the legitimacy and the work of the Constituent Assembly if things do not go their way. This could complicate the constitution drafting process.
In the city of Derna, extremist groups did their best to disrupt the elections. Islamist militias announced that anyone participating in the election would be deemed "infidels," and armed militants with weapons shut down all the polling stations. The government had no realistic options for countering the militias. Nonetheless, the election commission announced that 95 percent of polling stations were operational on that day. Polling stations that did not open on election day reopened today (Feb. 26) to give voters the chance to cast their vote. Initial reports indicate that voting in these stations has failed because potential voters were deterred by the lack of security. On Feb. 24, the head of the National Elections Commission, Nuri al-Abaar, criticized the government and the head of the army for their inability to establish security in Derna, which has fallen under the tight grip of extremists groups and has long been outside of government control. A coalition of civil society organizations in the city announced that they will not take part in the elections, urging citizens to boycott the polls until actual steps are taken to bring Derna back to normality.
The low turnout figures send a clear message to the political elite in Tripoli that Libyans have lost trust in them — and, by implication, in the democratic process itself. The politicians in Tripoli have a chance to restore trust in democracy by coming up with a compromise over the next agreed transitional phase that responds to the people’s aspirations. Once that happens, Libyan will still have a chance to make their voices heard when they go to the polls once again to cast their votes about the draft constitution produced by the assembly.
Libya’s Constitutional Declaration (the country’s political roadmap), stipulates that the assembly has four months from its first meeting to draft a constitution. The drafting phase will almost certainly take longer than planned, which will raise new questions about the overall process. Maintaining public trust is likely to prove a major challenge. It is crucial that the constitution drafting process goes hand in hand with the building of a national narrative that is inclusive of all the individual narratives that have been born in post-revolution Libya.
As Libya’s friends and the authorities in Tripoli prepare for the Friends of Libya conference on March 6, there are several other big picture questions that deserve careful consideration to ensure that the process moves forward steadily and smoothly, especially considering the dire security situation. Once the assembly is established, Libya will have two elected bodies — the Constituent Assembly and the GNC — operating simultaneously, without a clear separation of powers and identification of their areas of jurisdiction. The Constitutional Declaration lacks straightforward provisions that would help to avoid potential conflict between the two elected bodies. Recently, the GNC ordered a constitutional committee to amend the Constitutional Declaration to call for early presidential and parliamentary elections in the next few months. This would give the GNC a valuable chance to establish a proper decision making mechanism, separation of powers, and a clear definition of the roles of the different bodies.
Once the Constituent Assembly drafts a constitution, the draft will be put to a popular referendum within 30 days. It is essential that high turnout be secured for such a referendum, in order for the constitution to have real legitimacy and a seal of approval from the majority of Libyan voters. The failure to have an inclusive constitution drafting process would have dire consequences for Libya’s transition. And that, needless to say, would be a disaster for Libya’s democratic prospects.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.