Legitimacy is critical for any government, particularly one seeking to stabilize a country affected by conflict. The legitimacy deficit among Libyan national institutions, such as the Presidency Council, House of Representatives, and High State Council, is increasingly apparent. Internationally-supported efforts to hold national elections in Libya are an effort to address this legitimacy deficiency. However, elections originally set for late 2018 have been abandoned under a new UNSMIL-led initiative to hold them in spring of 2019. In the interim, UNSMIL head Ghassan Salame is proposing to hold an inclusive national conference bringing together Libyans from across the country in January 2019. Such initiatives have been tried before with limited success and there is the potential that a national gathering may prove too ambitious given the numerous conflicts and competing interests among various stakeholders. While preparing for future national elections and an inclusive dialogue are worthwhile, restoring the public’s confidence in elected government is needed to address the growing frustration with the underperformance of Libyan institutions and politicians. The most feasible way to do this is through organizing municipal elections.
Following the election for House of Representatives (HoR) of 2014, deep political fissures and mistrust produced competing governments that led to a protracted conflict which continues to this day. Despite this there were electoral successes in 2014 as numerous local elections produced democratically elected municipal councils across Libya. These elections were a significant step towards addressing a central demand of the 2011 Revolution – the decentralization of governance. Four years on, many of these municipal councils have proven to be pragmatic institutions working to address the needs of their communities; although the efficiency and effectiveness of these councils runs the gamut from profoundly dysfunctional to relatively good, despite numerous challenges.
These challenges include a lack of clarity over the implementation of Law 59 (the law on decentralization) and the powers devolved to local government. Moreover, inconsistent and delayed budgets from Libya’s national government(s) have limited the ability of these councils to implement local governance and development strategies. Despite these challenges, Libya’s municipal councils enjoy significant public support. Public opinion research conducted in May 2018 indicates that Libya’s municipal councils are seen as the most trustworthy and legitimate elected bodies in the country. Earlier research funded by USAID showed that one of the primary reasons for the public’s perceived legitimacy of municipal councils was that they were elected.
Given this, it is troubling that the electoral mandate for more than 70 municipal councils have already expired. In addition several municipalities in eastern Libya have had their elected municipal councils replaced by non-elected individuals appointed by the Libyan National Army (LNA). While the Central Committee for Municipal Council Elections (CCMCE) has organized municipal elections in Zawiyah, Bani Walid and Dirj earlier this year, these were for elections that did not take place in 2014.
On October 4, 2018, the Tripoli-based GNA released resolution 1363 which authorized conducting municipal elections and laid out the procedures under which such elections could be held. These procedures included voter registration, candidate registration, campaign finance and media, dispute resolution as well as the implementation of security for the elections.
A statementreleased by the CCMCE on October 30, 2018 called for a three phase electoral process; voter registration, candidate registration and elections, but this schedule has since been overtaken. On November 30, 2018 at a conference on municipal elections, the CCMCE announced that voter registration (via text message and in-person) would begin on December 12, 2018.
Later, on December 13th, when confirming voter registration had begun in only 68 communities, Salim bin Tahia, head of the CCMCE, announced that elections are expected to be held in early 2019. While moving forward with a new round of municipal elections is critical for reaffirming the legitimacy of municipal councils and the public’s confidence in elections, timelines must be realistic. Holding municipal elections in haste may result in technical errors or undermine the elections in other ways. For example, the CCMCE and its local election committees have for the most part been dormant since carrying out elections in 2014. Prior to holding municipal elections, elections officials will require training and election materials will need to procured and deployed.
Libya’s Ministry of Local Government (MoLG) has indicated that a voter registration period, which will obviously occur before elections can be held, is to update municipal voting roles from 2014. This update is necessary to add new voters now eligible to vote, but also to correct confusion on registration that occurred in 2014 when local and national election registration periods were held simultaneously and some voters were confused over which voter role they registered with. Libya has two voter lists, one for national elections administered by the High National Election Commission (HNEC) and one for subnational elections administered by CCMCE. While new voter registration is important, an additional option might be for the consolidation of these two lists into one national voter registration effort. This would help eliminate duplication of effort, voter confusion and the potential for fraud. In addition, resolution 1363 also establishes traditional criteria for voter registration that could exclude disenfranchised populations who are unable to acquire national identification cards, passports or other documents necessary to register. This has been a significant issue for non-Arab ethnic minorities in Libya and could further isolate them from political participation.
The inclusion of new or previously disenfranchised voters is important, but rushing a new voter registration drive runs the risk of diminishing the legitimacy of election results. Further, Libyan non-partisan election monitoring networks, such as Libya Network for Democracy and Development (LNDD), should expand their monitoring efforts to include the voter registration period.
In 2014 municipal elections cost the Libyan government approximately 65 million Libyan dinars (LYD). Considering the significant inflation in recent years, the cost of holding municipal elections now could easily exceed 100 million LYD. Without the GNA allocating a substantial budget for municipal elections it is hard to imagine how these elections will be implemented. While no replacement for GNA financial support, the United Nations and international donors have pledged to support municipal elections. Recent engagement by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) with the CCMCE is a promising development considering IFES’ track-record of supporting Libya’s High National Election Commission over the past several years. The lack of Libyan national government investment calls into question Libyan resolve in conducting these elections.
Resolution 1363 establishes a closed list with election by proportional majority. This shifts the electoral process from individual candidate as done in 2014 to party lists. This poses multiple challenges to the democratic system. Proponents of such a change argue that a party list would produce more effective councils by reducing disputes among council members and making it easier to find consensus. However, switching from individual candidates to party lists produce several significant challenges for future municipal elections.
There is a risk that lists, particularly in non-homogeneous municipalities, may not reflect the diversity of the communities that they are elected to represent. This would be particularly concerning in Libyan municipalities that have struggled with intra-communal conflict, marginalization, and mistrust within their communities. The CCMCE and MoLG have asserted that party lists would be reviewed to ensure inclusivity. Yet, with so many lists being created and the number elections occurring simultaneously, it would be a real challenge to ensure this. Such a change in candidate lists for future elections would further extend the timeline for holding elections and increases the risk that election results could be challenged on a legal basis or not be accepted by communities that do not perceive representation on the wining list. The later could potentially increase ethnic, tribal or religious fissures within communities.
The resolution establishing these elections requires that one woman and one wounded revolutionary be included in the candidate list. While this mandate conforms with the provisions of law 59, it will likely preclude wider participation of these groups. In addition, party lists are only required to present three additional candidates as alternatives to replace those elected who might later resign office, but no provision is made to ensure that women and other disenfranchised communities are among those alternates to ensure their seats can be supported. So it is possible under the current construct that if a woman or wounded revolutionary is forced to vacate their seat they will be replaced by a male counterpart.
In a carryover from the election regulations of 2014, resolution 1363 mandates the resignation of all public officials who intend to run for election to municipal councils. While this is intended to prevent the use of public office for campaign purposes, it also means that all currently elected councilors must resign from office prior to announcing their candidacy. This will create a vacuum in the efficiency and operation of municipal councils prior to elections as their membership must resign to seek reelection.
Coupled with these administrative challenges are the security challenges posed by Libya’s numerous armed groups. Resolution 1363, states that “uniformed police officers” are to support the elections and provide security for polling places. In Libya, the distinction between police forces and other armed groups is frequently blurred and it is likely that some militia groups will fulfill this security function; this raises the potential for voter intimidation and interference by undisciplined, ill-informed or malicious militiamen. Election security planning is essential prior to conducting municipal elections. This will require substantive engagement with a variety local actors that are present and frequently engaged in their communities. What can be learned from Libya’s experience with municipal elections in 2014 is that armed groups will be involved in local elections in several ways. Some may be disruptive forces, while others will provide security and act as a deterrent to potential spoilers. As was the case in 2014, it is also highly likely that the leadership of some armed groups will choose to participate in municipal elections as candidates. Considering the multiple roles that armed actors may play in future elections, it is important for those organizing municipal elections to devise disincentives to prevent armed groups from disrupting elections, while providing the training and tools needed to provide Election Day security. Should some individuals associated with armed groups opt to run as candidates, it is critical that these candidates commit to renouncing violence and intimidation as well as respecting the results of the vote.
In Libya, the need for elections to restore the legitimacy of government institutions and the public’s confidence in the elections process is significant. While national elections are needed, the consensus necessary for these elections are not currently present although they may ultimately materialize in the coming year. In the interim, the focus should be on organizing free, fair and transparent local elections that reaffirm the legitimacy of municipal councils and empower these councils to address the needs of their constituents as well as represent them.