Are the next Libyan elections doomed to fail?
On 28 May 2018, the French president Emmanuel Macron hosted the leaders of the four main Libyan factions to break the stalemate in Libya. The Government of National Accord (GNA) prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj, president of the High Council of State (HCS), Khalid Meshri, president of the House of Representatives (HoR), Aguila Saleh, and the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Khalifa Haftar, as well as representatives from 20 states and international organisations, were invited to work on a roadmap to end political instability in the country.
The parties agreed on the need to formulate a constitutional framework for elections by 16 September, to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on 10 December, and to promote unity among the disparate Libyan financial and security bodies. They further vowed to protect the freedom and credibility of the election process and to respect the final results. This historic, and in principle admirable, move was concluded with a joint declaration outlining how they would proceed. However, although it is a step in the right direction towards national reconciliation, the endorsement fails to take into account institutional obstacles to organising elections and the interests if the dominant actors in Libya.
One of the main challenges to the framework established in Paris is the lack of a clear electoral law. The Libyan Electoral Commission is reviewing the law, but has still not decided whether it will be based on the 2014 electoral law, whether it will be an updated version of the 2014 law, or whether there will be an altogether new law that fits the current political situation. The lack of a national constitution that lays down the regulations for the election process and outcomes further exacerbates the dilemma. The Libyan constitution remains in draft form, and it seems unlikely that the Libyan people will get to vote on it in a national referendum any time soon. Given the current political realities, along with the absence of a constitution, it is highly probable that the final version of the electoral law will not be agreed before the deadline set in Paris. Consequently, the push for elections to institutionalise power sharing when the rules for the electoral game have not been set is a miscalculated move.
(...) there are no guarantees that there will be free election campaigns. Certain candidates may be vetoed. Moreover, there are no assurances that people will be able to cast their votes in a free and democratic manner without being threatened and intimidated by local or national armed groups
Alongside institutional obstacles to free and fair elections, the lack of a unified security apparatus may also hamper the election process. Currently, Libya has no national army or police force. Both GNA and LNA forces are composed of militias with their own interests that are not always in line with GNA and LNA priorities. Many of the local militias have their own agendas, even if they are affiliated with the GNA or LNA. To further complicate matters, there are numerous ethnic, tribal and armed smuggling groups that do not take orders from either party. In such an environment, there are no guarantees that there will be free election campaigns. Certain candidates may be vetoed. Moreover, there are no assurances that people will be able to cast their votes in a free and democratic manner without being threatened and intimidated by local or national armed groups. There is also no way to ensure that election results will be accepted. The fragmentation in Libya means that for every winner there are many losers. In addition, many of the armed groups on the ground tend not to care about outcomes at the political level. The end result might be an altogether new set up, with a third Libyan government emerging to further fragment and destabilise the country.
Aside from the four main factions, which themselves are internally divided, there are scores of actors competing for authority and power in Libya
Another concern is that, even if both Libyan governments and army commander Haftar accept the final results, their local armed allies might not. Indeed, the fact that four Libyan rivals agreed to endorse the principles outlined in Paris does not mean that they will be able to implement them. Aside from the four main factions, which themselves are internally divided, there are scores of actors competing for authority and power in Libya. Some of these actors are allied with one of the two governments dividing the country – the UN-backed GNA based in Tripoli and the HoR based in Tobruk. However, as previous incidents have proved, local actors do not always accept or comply with their sponsor’s decisions. For example, the city of Misrata is one of the most important military and political centres of authority allied with the GNA, but local actors have made it clear that they will not acknowledge the Paris Summit guidelines. The diverse responses from members of parliament and local elites to the news from Paris reflect these divisions. These rifts cannot be ignored in efforts to reach stability in Libya as they will severely complicate the electoral process.
Finally, we must keep in mind that the balance of power has recently shifted towards army commander Haftar. His blessing of the French plan is an indication of this power shift, which has strengthened him vis-à-vis the GNA and rivals from Tripoli. Haftar controls much of resource-rich Eastern Libya, which enables him to exert considerable influence over the HoR Tobruk government. Moreover, he is involved in what seems to be a successful campaign against armed groups in Derna, many of which are affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Haftar knows that he will probably continue to make gains with or without elections, while the Tripoli-based GNA still struggles to assert control in and beyond the capital and uphold the institutions under its control. Most importantly, elections in Libya will allow Haftar to legitimise his military rule in a democratic manner – an outcome similar to the Egyptian experience with Abdul-Fatah al-Sisi.
In conclusion, what Libya needs in the short term is not another election, which could escalate divisions and instability. Instead, international and Libyan efforts should focus on encouraging all Libyan factions to agree on a national constitution and create an inclusive political framework for the Libyan state. They might even prioritise other aspects of the Paris Plan – particularly its financial and security components. Furthermore, Libyan leaders should be assisted in bridging the gap between the various security and financial institutions. The country’s need for a unified army and police force and a functioning economy can no longer be ignored. Elections make fragile states look good. But they are not always the solution for countries transitioning from authoritarianism to democracy.
 Déclaration politique sur la Libye. Elysee: http://www.elysee.fr/communiques-de-presse/article/declaration-politique-sur-la-libye/
 War-torn Libya Plans an Election. The Economist: https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2018/04/05/war-torn-libya-plans-an-election
 Libya electoral commission makes new proposal for presidential elections. Libya Observeer: https://www.libyaobserver.ly/news/libya-electoral-commission-makes-new-proposal-presidential-elections