Elections in Libya: Dim Prospects for Stability


Main Image Credit A street in Tripoli, Libya. Courtesy of Sufian Alashger/Alamy Stock Photo


While elections in Libya are long overdue, the chances of carrying off a successful electoral process in December remain low.

Libya’s elections are scheduled for the end of this year and, as we inch closer to the proposed date, there has been a noticeable increase in international statements underscoring the importance of holding the elections on time. This is the key wish included in a statement by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who emphasised that the US ‘is fully committed to advancing diplomatic engagement to enhance international efforts to support progress in Libya’. A similar recent statement was made by Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry, who ‘renewed Egypt’s support for holding the Libyan elections on time, as a way of establishing a civil and democratic state’.

Civil society and democratic institutions will undoubtedly play an instrumental role in Libya’s future. Yet despite potentially good intentions, what Libya’s international counterparts have wrong is the sequence in which the delicate process of holding elections must transpire. This is of course not a new idea, with researchers such as Thomas Carothers famously analysing and challenging what was termed the ‘sequencing fallacy’ of democratic transformation.

In his analysis, Carothers challenges ‘the notion that achieving regular, genuine elections will not only confer democratic legitimacy on new governments but continuously deepen political participation and democratic accountability’. His challenge stems from a number of factors that are particularly relevant to the Libyan case.

Libya’s Hurdles

The first of these relates to the gulf between elites and citizens in a country, which elections are often not enough to overcome. In the case of Libya, this includes the perception that elites contending for office simply do not represent the wide range of domestic interest groups, particularly due to discrepancies in the distribution of resources, as well as existing divisions between the country’s youth and the older generation of politicians. With the top 10% of the population accounting for a whopping 45% of national income, it is understandable that those contending for office are not perceived as representing the interests of all Libyans.

The prevalence of such issues in Libya, alongside the lack of oversight and accountability mechanisms capable of addressing them, partially explains the lack of trust that exists today in Libya’s electoral system. According to Carothers, ‘In many transitional countries, reasonably regular, genuine elections are held but political participation beyond voting remains shallow and governmental accountability is weak’.

A further issue highlighted in Carothers’ analysis that is relevant to the case of Libya is the existence of ‘feckless pluralism and dominant-power politics’. Successful electoral mechanisms require that all parties involved feel that at least one of the contenders has their community’s best interests at heart. Even if one’s candidate of choice does not win, mutual toleration and the acceptance of electoral outcomes by the minority occur only when all parties in question feel that they at least had a chance.

That is certainly not the case in Libya, where the contenders for the leadership include the likes of General Khalifa Haftar, who has rebranded himself as a politician having been unsuccessful in capturing the country militarily. There have even been recent reports that Saif al-Islam, the son of Libya’s late dictator Muammar Qadhafi, plans to put his name forward. Without adequate reason to partake in the electoral process from the outset, it is only natural that whatever the outcome of the forthcoming vote, violent resistance by Libyans who do not feel properly represented – with an emphasis on ethnic minorities – is to be expected.

This will only be exacerbated by the lack of a non-politicised central police force and military that can secure and protect the outcome. Continuing foreign involvement in Libya will certainly only make this worse. There is good reason to be concerned given the precedent of the 2014 elections, which resulted in war. With forces loyal to Haftar as well as other militias still wielding significant influence in certain parts of the country, it should be expected that they will resist or undermine any attempt at free and fair elections.

Democratic Backsliding

The historical analysis of a number of cases, particularly in Eastern and Central Europe, shows that the most likely outcome is what has been termed ‘democratic backsliding’. In the case of Libya, it is doubtful whether democracy has ever truly existed, perhaps making the term ‘democratic erosion’ more appropriate. History shows that such scenarios lead to the emergence of authoritarian hybrid regimes that make use of ‘democratic’ elections to justify their existence. The lack of the necessary system of checks and balances or a history of democratic institutions in Libya’s case only increases the chances of such a regime taking hold in the long term.

Indeed, this is not an issue that is unique to Libya. In a recent paper published by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 15 distinct cases of elections in democratising societies were evaluated. Unsurprisingly, the work concluded that ‘[If] decisions on the timing and sequencing of transitional elections are not well-thought through, the elections can instead exacerbate tensions and thereby increase the risk of renewal of conflicts or democratic backsliding’.

Forcing elections when Libya is so obviously not ready is a mistake. If 10 years of civil war have shown us anything, it is that it takes very little to exacerbate tensions and give local and regional actors a reason to renew conflict. This risk is even more pronounced in Libya, where the absence of any genuine effort towards national reconciliation has been apparent. Carothers’ work is enlightening here as well, as it distinguishes between sequencing and gradualism. While sequencing’s demand for the rule of law and a well-functioning state as prerequisites for democratisation often puts the process off indefinitely, gradualism seeks to slowly build democracy, accounting for the risks and complications inherent in the transition.

Not the Ballot Box Alone

But the international community has boxed itself in, with elections the only tool it believes it has in Libya. What Libya actually requires today is a gradualist approach, which involves carrying out a delicate inclusive constitutional process, as well as building an independent judiciary and the institutions needed for law enforcement. The potential for this to succeed would increase exponentially if it were to take place under the leadership of a figurehead perceived as neutral, uncorrupted and representing the interests of all Libyans.

Who that leader may be is for Libyans to determine. After all, they have been in this situation before, when in 1951 they decided on a constitutional monarchy under King Idris Al Senussi – a political model consistent with Carothers’ gradualism. The one thing that is certain, however, is that in the absence of such a unifying force, pushing forward with elections at this delicate juncture is the wrong decision.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Ashraf Boudouara

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