The path to national elections in Libya in December is far from as smooth as international stakeholders would like. Among the most crucial hurdles are the 2021 national budget, the constitutional principles that will serve as the basis for the elections, the electoral laws required to conduct the polls, and the unification of the military and security establishments that will be in charge of ensuring the balloting process.
As the Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU) headed by Abdel-Hamid Al-Dabaiba awaits the country’s House of Representatives (HoR) to approve the budget, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) is preparing to debate the text of constitutional provisions on the elections drafted by the House’s Legal Committee.
Meanwhile, the east-west bifurcation of military and security forces persists, which, combined with the continued presence of foreign military forces and mercenaries on Libyan territory, means that the current stability is still fragile.
Lawmakers in the HoR session in Tobruk on Monday were unable to proceed to a vote on the budget bill due to so-far insurmountable differences between three camps. One insists that the House should only vote on the section pertaining to civil-servant salaries without adopting a provision that might restrict government allocations and spending to improve public services.
A second camp opposes a vote on the bill until after key posts in sovereign offices are filled, a route that would throw the interim Libyan roadmap off schedule and intensify tensions between the political forces and especially between the Tripoli-based High Council of State (HCS) and the HoR.
The third camp wants to return the bill to the government so as to give each of Libya’s three regions of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan the opportunity to submit proposals reflecting their particular needs. Critics hold that this risks reigniting divisions that had just begun to mend with the creation of the new executive.
If the House does not approve the budget, the necessary funding stipulated by the Supreme National Elections Commission (SNEC) will not be available for the elections that Libyans are looking forward to in December.
Meanwhile, the LPDF convened for a two-day virtual meeting on Wednesday and Thursday to finalise the proposed constitutional basis for the parliamentary and presidential elections to be held on 24 December. The proposal had been drafted by the LPDF Legal Committee during its meeting in Tunis from 7- 9 April and refined during subsequent consultations facilitated by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).
The LPDF needs to resolve outstanding differences over the constitutional basis before it is submitted to the HoR for ratification. Once that is done, lawmakers will proceed to draft the specific laws governing the December elections. The hope is that they will finish this task before July.
The LPDF Committee also submitted a proposal to defer the referendum on the Libyan constitution until after the parliamentary elections so that the newly elected legislature can draft the law governing the referendum. Under the draft constitution, parliaments will sit for a four-year term or until a new executive authority is elected, whichever comes first.
Some pending differences concern the presidential elections. The main bone of contention is whether the president should be elected by direct popular vote or indirectly by the next HoR. The members of the Legal Committee, unable to resolve that issue, agreed to refer it to the LPDF plenary, according to the text released by UNSMIL.
But even before this is done, there is still significant opposition to the LPDF process itself, with many arguing that the draft constitution adopted by a Constituent Assembly nearly four years ago should be put to a referendum.
On Sunday, 109 Libyan figures, including four HoR members, seven HCS members and 28 individuals who had served on the Constituent Assembly, issued a statement describing the constitutional basis proposal drafted by the LPDF Legal Committee as “wrong in the light of the already existing constitutional bill approved on 29 July 2017 by a body that was elected in a democratic and constitutionally legitimate manner.”
Conducting a referendum on that bill “is the sole and shortest legitimate means to bringing an end to the interim phases,” they stressed, adding their rejection of “foreign dictates and outside intervention in the affairs of Libyan sovereign bodies” and of “the politicisation of the Supreme National Elections Commission.”
The statement is a reaction to a joint statement released by the US, UK, French, Italian and German embassies in Libya earlier this month calling on “the relevant Libyan authorities and institutions, including the GNU and House of Representatives, to facilitate the 24 December 2021 elections and agree the constitutional and legal basis for these elections by 1 July 2021.”
The statement stressed that “now is not the time for any disruptive changes in the relevant bodies which enable that preparation to take place within the timescale set out by UN Security Council Resolution 2570.”
Both the HoR and the HCS rejected what they termed “an intervention in domestic affairs that does not serve the desired national consensus.” This unified stance between the Tobruk-based parliament and its long-term adversary the Tripoli-based High Council of State was unprecedented.
In addition, in what seemed to be further collective resistance to Western pressures, the HCS announced that it has now approved the constitutional referendum law that the HoR had drafted and submitted to the Supreme National Elections Commission over a year ago. The HCS asked the SNEC to proceed with the referendum process in accordance with the law the HoR had already submitted, HCS member Omar Boushah said on Monday.
According to the HoR constitutional referendum law, the draft constitution must obtain an absolute majority of the votes cast in all three regions of Libya. In the event that it fails to obtain the required majority in one or more regions, the bill must be returned to the Constituent Assembly for revision. This would most likely mean that the elections could not be held on schedule.
The HCS previously opposed the HoR’s referendum law in September 2018. At that time, it objected that it had not been consulted on it. It also opposed the division of the country into three main electoral constituencies instead of 13, as had been the case with the elections to the General National Congress and the House of Representatives.
Chair of the Supreme National Elections Commission Emadeddin Al-Sayeh has added his voice to the debate. In a television interview last week, he expressed his surprise at the change of heart of the HCS, which had obstructed the referendum on the constitution two years ago.
He said that calls for a referendum were a “ploy” to delay the scheduled elections and charged that “certain countries,” which he did not name, were working with their allies inside Libya to obstruct the process in order to safeguard their interests.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly