Libya’s upcoming presidential vote - or its absence - could force a U-turn back towards violence, as elections often do in fragile contexts.

Libya is at a delicate point in its history. The deeply fractured and divided North African country has the first round of presidential elections officially set for December 24, yet we do not know if the elections will be held that day. Whether or not elections are held then, and whether the second round and parliamentary elections are held in February will matter significantly. But more importantly, how various domestic and foreign actors act in the period following elections matters even more.

The Libyan civil war that broke out in May 2014 came to a halt in the middle of last year. By October 2020, an official ceasefire went into effect. Then in the first few months of 2021, Libyans, with the help of the UN, agreed to work together via an interim government — the Government of National Unity (GNU) — and hold presidential elections. And, deliberately, no contingencies were made for a scenario whereby elections are delayed in order to force them to be held. This is problematic. There is a real risk of a crisis in Libya no matter whether elections are held or not.

“Libya is in a state of limbo at this point because whatever happens is going to be sub-optimal in this very polarised pre-elections environment,” said Dr Andreas Krieg, a senior lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King's College London, in an interview with TRT World.

Worse, Libyans have no constitutional framework for their elections. They cannot agree on which candidates should be permitted to run in this election; all four of the highest profile candidacies are controversial. Any of them winning could easily worsen polarisation in Libya, so American and UN diplomats are privately fretting about the day after the elections.

“The three candidates leading in the polls include the GNU’s Prime Minister Abdulhamid Mohammed Al Dabaiba, who pledged he would not run, Saif al Islam Gaddafi who fought violently against the democratic revolution and has not endorsed any of its fruits, and the warlord Khalifa Haftar, who declared war against half the country and, according the United Nations and plaintiffs in several lawsuits, is responsible for innumerable war crimes,” Dr William Lawrence, professor at American University with extensive experience in Libya, told TRT World.

The fourth-ranked candidate is Fathi Bashagha, the former interior minister. Since he staunchly defended the west in the war, he probably wouldn’t be accepted in the east.

Moreover, the courts had excluded two main candidates - ones that would attract most of the vote - Dabaiba and Saif al-Islam, from running, only for them to be apparently reinstated on appeal. This created a situation where the announcement of the final list of candidates was further delayed.

And still worse, the powers the president and parliament will exercise have been only vaguely defined in election law itself. Therefore, Libyans are not even entirely clear about what they’ll be voting for when elections are held.

There are just as many unresolved questions about security and logistics. There isn’t consensus on how the elections will be held. “If elections will be held, which is a very improbable thing, there will be boycotts, intimidation of voters and fraud,” Dr Federica Saini Fasanotti, a non-resident fellow at the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, told TRT World.

Additionally, it is not clear how the foreign actors directly involved in Libya will respond to the situation. There is a major Turkish presence in the Tripoli area, while the Russian Wagner Group maintains approximately 2,000 forces in Libya’s east and south. Over 10,000 mercenaries from Syria are arrayed against each other on the two sides. Mercenaries from Sudan and Chad are also present in the hundreds as well. How certain actors in Libya might view this role of external forces in the country amid this election, and how those forces act, will matter significantly.

Ticking clock

If the election commission does not bring clarity to the final candidate list before there is only a week left to go (especially if the reinstated candidates are re-excluded), the remaining candidates will have hardly any time to campaign. Their followers might boycott the elections. Those aspects could further undermine the elections’ perceived legitimacy, as could a delay.

The interim government only has a mandate to stay in power until December 24.

“If there aren’t any elections, immediately there will be forces in this highly polarised environment who’ll make the claim that the government is no longer [their] government and no longer legitimate to be there,” Dr Krieg said.

“All that uncertainty creates more polarisation and provides more vulnerabilities that could be potentially used to mobilise against the elections and the status quo.”

Within the context of the North African country’s contentious environment, we can conclude that the holding of elections this month could at least provide some semblance of legitimacy to Libya’s political process. Thus, concerns that a delay would threaten the entire process are valid - it could result in a pre-GNU-like period or even spiral into civil war.

Ideally, the election of a new president will help Libya and its citizens reunite under one new leader who is seen as democratically legitimate, creating a valuable opportunity for the country to re-stabilise following years of violence and instability.

In practice, however, there are legitimate reasons to fear how this electoral process (or absence of one) could force a U-turn back towards violence, as elections often do in fragile contexts.

As Libya approaches December 24, it is important to keep in mind that certain actors such as those loyal to Haftar in the country do not want to see elections this month, or ever, particularly because they know that they cannot take power via the ballot box. So, they may use force to take it. These factions could once again prove spoilers to the Libyans’ aspirations for stability and democracy.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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Source: TRT World