After months of anticipation, Libyan voters were unable to go to the polls in parliamentary and presidential elections originally scheduled for 24 December.
Although some 2.8 million eligible voters had received their voting cards, the Libyan Higher National Elections Commission (HNEC) had to call off the polls at the last minute due to “force majeure.” It proposed 24 January as an alternative date, triggering an outcry among those calling for the revision of current laws and regulations governing the electoral process and those calling for a completely new roadmap.
The postponement of the elections was not unexpected, however, since none of the agencies concerned had taken this important process seriously enough, from the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), which sponsors the political process, to the Libyan institutions that had been tasked with laying the groundwork for the elections.
The inconsistencies of international players also played a role. Despite their repeated insistence that the elections had to take place as scheduled, their behaviour said something else.
The role of the UN in Libya, which has sponsored the Libyan political process since 2014, has declined since the UN Security Council decided to restructure UNSMIL. According to UN Security Council Resolution 2542 of September 2020, the leadership was split into a special envoy based in Geneva in charge of policy and a coordinator based in Libya in charge of day-to-day operations.
Slovakian diplomat Jan Kubiš was special envoy from February last year to his sudden resignation shortly before the elections were to be held, while Zimbabwean diplomat Raisedon Zenenga served as coordinator. The split leadership gave rise to a split in outlooks to the point where some quarters in Libya accused Kubiš of trying to obstruct the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF).
This occurred during negotiations over the constitutional basis for the elections in June and July last year and again in the LPDF’s last meeting in September when Kubiš refused to reconvene the forum unless its members could guarantee an agreement.
Some Western powers also accused him of siding with Russia on the political process and the elections. Moscow favoured postponing the elections to ensure the greatest possible unanimity and participation.
The criticisms led to a dispute between Kubiš and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, culminating in his abrupt resignation and Guterres’s refusal to allow him to remain in post until a successor could be found. This decision will need to be taken before the end of January when the Security Council will need to determine whether to renew the UNSMIL mandate, extended provisionally for four months in September because of disagreements between Russia and the Western powers over its structure and functions.
Guterres has appointed US diplomat Stephanie Williams special adviser for Libyan affairs and entrusted her with leading the mediation efforts. As former acting head of UNSMIL and a founder of the current political process, her task this time around may be even more challenging because of the changes that have taken place in Libya and the difficulties that led to the postponement of the elections.
Williams is partly to blame for the situation in Libya reaching this point, as she was instrumental in the restructuring of the political process that gave rise to the Presidency Council and the Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU). By sidelining the Libyan House of Representatives (HoR) and the Higher Council of State (HCS), she effectively created the space for those institutions to evade their responsibilities.
The Tobruk-based HoR and the Tripoli-based HCS understood that the UN-sponsored political process aimed to exclude them from future arrangements, so they did all they could to undermine the process. They refused to reach a consensus on the constitutional basis for the elections and the electoral laws, and the HoR unilaterally adopted loosely worded electoral laws that ended up delaying the preparations. The result was nearly a hundred presidential elections candidates, most of whom were unknown, while the others were highly controversial figures.
Despite the controversy surrounding the constitutional basis and electoral laws, the HNEC went ahead with the process, acting in response to Western pressure and pressure from Libyan quarters dissatisfied with the arrangements produced by the LPDF and keen to see an end to current institutions.
However, the HNEC then found itself in a bind and was forced to call off the elections. When asked to explain the nature of the “force majeure,” the HNEC chairperson said it included conflicting judicial rulings and threats to the HNEC if it issued the final candidate list with certain names on it.
The HNEC was wrong to have identified with the HoR and to have agreed to work with flawed electoral laws, especially before making sure that it would be able to control the electoral process and polling stations across the country. These mistakes drew attention to the HNEC, giving rise to demands for a new board, something that HoR member Saleh Afhima has said might take place after 24 January.
For 11 months, the Libyan players have manoeuvred to undermine the current roadmap that was to culminate on 24 December. The international players issued sternly worded statements saying the elections had to proceed on schedule and warning that anyone obstructing them would be liable to sanctions.
But action was taken to back up these words, helping to poison an electoral process that the Libyan parties began to see as a means to advance some parties at the expense of others. The conflict among the major powers over the structure and functions of UNSMIL added fuel to the fire.
Against this complicated backdrop, there seems to be no clear path forward. The stakeholders are debating three alternatives: see the current roadmap to the end with elections set as soon as possible; reorganise the electoral process and amend the governing laws; or abandon the current roadmap and start a new process leading to a new roadmap, executive, constitutional basis and electoral laws.
The first two options will be difficult in view of the complex interests at stake, meaning that all eyes are on the third. This could conceivably take place through a negotiating process with representatives from all sides, now that the HoR and HCS have presented themselves as bodies that could rescue the situation from the current impasse.
It is difficult to envision polls taking place soon because of sharp divisions over a number of issues. The most crucial is whether to hold presidential and parliamentary elections simultaneously. The dominant political forces in western Libya have been pushing for parliamentary elections first, while those in the east prioritise the presidential elections.
Reorganising the current process is also problematic, not just because of the time it would take, but also more importantly because of the risks of backsliding into armed conflict, especially in the light of the barrages of legal challenges that many candidates for the parliamentary and presidential elections received and the threats to the HNEC if it omitted certain names.
Even so, the third option might stand the best chance of success. Fresh negotiations among the stakeholders would inspire all the parties to participate more constructively in the political process. What direction these will take will become clearer on 24 January when Williams briefs the UN Security Council on the situation in Libya and her plans for resolving the impasse.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.