The UN-sponsored Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) has failed to reach an agreement on the constitutional basis for holding legislative and presidential elections in Libya, despite the five-day extension of the deadline.
The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and most of the participants at the Berlin II Conference on Libya had hoped that the members of the LPDF plenary who met in Geneva would overcome outstanding differences and reach an agreement before 1 July so as to allow sufficient time for measures to be taken to prepare the polls scheduled on 24 December.
The Berlin II Conference in its closing statement of 23 June had reiterated the need for the elections to take place on time and appealed to the Libyan House of Representatives, High Council of State, Presidency Council, Government of National Unity (GNU) and other bodies to make this possible.
The failure of the LPDF plenary to reach an agreement and the accompanying acrimony may jeopardise the first major breakthrough in the Libyan crisis since 2016.
Last Friday, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Coordinator of UNSMIL Raisedon Zenenga delivered remarks in which he announced the failure and what had led to it.
“It is regrettable that, despite all the opportunities, there is still no common ground,” he said. “The people of Libya will certainly feel let down as they still aspire to the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights in presidential and parliamentary elections on 24 December. This does not bode well for the credibility and relevance of the LPDF.”
“From the onset of this process, we were committed to giving you all the opportunities to reach a compromise,” he said, in remarks directed at the latter. He noted that three other proposals apart from the one developed had emerged. “Some of them were consistent with the Roadmap, some of them were not consistent with the Roadmap, and some sought to establish preconditions for arriving at the 24 December date.”
LPDF members pointed the finger elsewhere in explaining the failure to reach an agreement. They criticised the way the sessions were run and described the facilitator as “weak” compared to former acting UNSMIL Chief Stephanie Williams.
UN Special Envoy for Libya Ján Kubiš was unable to attend the meetings in Geneva because he had been infected with Covid-19. He took the opportunity to remind participants that the meeting was “your chance to live up to the commitments which you have made to the Libyan people when you adopted the Roadmap, supported by UN Security Council Resolution 2570 and the conclusions of the Second Berlin Conference.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry announced on its Twitter account on Sunday that deputy foreign minister Sergey Vershinin had held consultations in Geneva with Kubiš on Friday. Vershinin and Kubiš discussed the current situation in the Libyan political process and the tasks that lay ahead, including the elections and the preservation of security, a statement said.
This was the first time that the Russian Foreign Ministry has acknowledged the presence of Russian diplomats in the negotiations between Libyan representatives in Geneva. It may explain US Special Envoy for Libya Richard Norland’s remarks that members of the LPDF had been trying to insert “poison pills” into the negotiations in Geneva.
“We have watched the LPDF meetings this week in Geneva closely,” Norland said, “including several members who appear to be trying to insert ‘poison pills’ that will ensure elections will not happen, either by prolonging the constitutional process or by creating new conditions that must be met for elections to occur.”
The members of the LPDF fell into three camps on the constitutional basis for the elections. One favoured holding parliamentary elections and deferring the presidential elections until after a constitution is adopted. Another continued to support the current Roadmap, which calls for both parliamentary and presidential elections to be held simultaneously. The third group advocated postponing the elections until after a new constitution is adopted.
According to LPDF member Zahra Langi, representatives of Libyan military leader Khalifa Haftar had supported direct presidential elections on condition that members of the military could run for the office without having to resign their posts, as required by the LPDF advisory committee’s proposal.
Representatives for GNU Prime Minister Abdel-Hamid Al-Dabaiba wanted to postpone the elections, which runs counter to the Roadmap. Langi said that the UNSMIL facilitator had chosen these two proposals as the focus for discussions on Thursday.
On Friday, the bridging committee the LPDF members had created tried to find common ground. In an announcement on Saturday evening, LPDF member Ziad Daghim claimed that “around 18 members” of the LPDF had threatened to obstruct the vote on the proposals.
“They want to tailor the constitutional basis to their whims,” he said, accusing the UNSMIL of “colluding with them, perhaps at the bidding of international powers, in order to cancel the vote and postpone the forum.”
UNSMIL released a statement affirming the need to continue efforts to reach “a workable compromise.” It stressed that it “will continue to work with the LPDF members and the Proposals-Bridging-Committee to explore further efforts to build common ground based on the Legal Committee’s proposal that all recognise as the reference framework for a constitutional basis for the elections.”
The proposals for a constitutional basis for the elections, copies of which have been seen by Al-Ahram Weekly, appear to be designed to limit the scope of the laws regulating the presidential and parliamentary elections that the House of Representatives will be responsible for drawing up.
But they may subsequently provide the grounds to contest the results of the political process. The prospects of this are enhanced by the refusal of the Libyan stakeholders to budge from their positions, informed by alignments with foreign powers that are at odds over the Libyan political process and the impetus towards elections supported by the Western camp led by the US.
The last session of the LPDF was a major test, and its results contrast sharply with its success in forming the new Libyan executive authority in February. The fear now is that Libya will revert to a political impasse, which could raise the spectre of a return to war if elections are not held at the time specified by the Roadmap.
Although the ceasefire has continued to hold, the situation on the ground remains sharply divided. The authorities in Tripoli do not control the whole of the country, and Libyan National Army (LNA) Commander Haftar has launched operations to route terrorists and mercenaries in the south.
The Libyan government is still awaiting approval by the House of Representatives of the country’s national budget, essential in order to release the funds required for improving public services and for the High National Elections Commission (HNEC).
Among the reasons why the Tobruk-based House of Representatives is dragging its feet is that it is using this as leverage with regard to candidates for the heads of sovereign institutions that it insists need to be agreed before the elections. Some observers anticipate increasing pressures to reconstitute the new executive as a condition for heading into the elections by the end of the year.
In contrast to last week’s negative developments, the HNEC opened this week on a positive note by announcing that it would launch voter registration for the elections in December. The last time this took place was in summer 2018 in anticipation of elections that Libyan leaders had vowed to hold during their meeting in Paris in May that year.
Those elections never took place, but voters will now have the opportunity to update their information if necessary, and new voters will have the opportunity to register. UNSMIL welcomed the HNEC’s decision, which it described as “a key milestone towards the realisation of the Libyan people’s overwhelming demand for national elections on 24 December.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly