Libyans vote as anger mounts over insecurity

AFP , Thursday 20 Feb 2014

A man casts his ballot during a vote to elect a constitution-drafting panel in Benghazi February 20, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

Libyans went to the polls Thursday to elect a panel to draft a new constitution in the latest milestone in the chaotic political transition following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi

There was none of the voter enthusiasm that marked Libya's first free election in July 2012 as public frustration mounts over the weak central government's failure to restore order in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising.

At Fatma al-Zahra school in the capital's Hay al-Andalous, less than 100 of 2,760 registered voters had cast their ballot two hours after the opening.

"It's still early and it's a holiday (for the vote). People are having a lie-in," said Ali Hassan, the official in charge of the polling station.

Houda Bouzid, a woman in her 30s, said: "I've come to vote for a candidate to push for women's rights in the new constitution."

Polls opened at 0600 GMT and were to run until 1700 GMT to elect a 60-member assembly tasked with drawing up a new constitution.

Just 1.1 million of 3.4 million eligible voters bothered to register compared to more than 2.7 million 19 months ago -- and that only after several extensions to the deadline.

The interior ministry said at least 25 security personnel were being deployed in each of the North African nation's 1,500 polling stations.

The 2012 election was marred by some violence on polling day, particularly in the restive east, a stronghold of hardline Islamist groups.

A threat by powerful former rebel militias to dissolve the interim General National Congress (GNC) elected in the 2012 poll has ramped up pressure on the weak central government ahead of the vote.

In the more than two years since Gaddafi was captured and killed, former rebel brigades armed with heavy weapons looted from his arsenals have carved out fiefdoms across the sprawling country, with many refusing demands to disarm or join the armed forces.

The persistent lawlessness was highlighted by the brief abduction of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan by former rebel militia in the capital last October.

The new charter is to cover key issues such as Libya's system of government, the status of ethnic minorities and the role of Islamic sharia law.

But Libya is to go ahead with elections to a new transitional authority rather than wait for the constitution to be finalised.

Following street protests over its decision to extend its mandate until the end of the year, the GNC agreed on Sunday to organise early elections for a replacement body.

In principle, all of the 692 hopefuls in Thursday's poll were standing as individuals, as political parties were barred from fielding candidates.

The candidates include 73 women, and the assembly will have at least six seats reserved for women.

Another six seats are reserved for members of Libya's three main ethnic minority groups -- the Berbers, Toubous and Tuareg.

But the two Berber seats will remain vacant as the main Berber organisations called a boycott to protest the failure of the interim authorities to guarantee the community -- which played a major role in the 2011 uprising -- a bigger say in drawing up the new charter.

The Supreme Council of Berbers in Libya declared Thursday a day of mourning and asked people to wear black in protest, adding that it would not recognise the new constitution.

The UN Support Mission in Libya expressed its backing for the "long awaited achievement" of the assembly election.

"It calls upon all Libyans to contribute positively to this democratic process and to provide the suitable atmosphere for this important event that paves the way towards putting the basic foundations for a modern Libyan state," UN envoy Tarek Mitri said.

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