Counting the next elections in Libya by Belabbes Benkredda

After a decade of chaos and civil war, Libyans have become disenchanted with politics. As the first round of the December 24 presidential election approaches, the opportunity to hear candidates discuss and debate their plans for the country is a crucial step towards building trust, legitimacy and accountability. political stability.

TUNIS – On December 24, Libyans are expected to go to the polls for the first round of a presidential election that has been brewing for years. The vote comes after decades of dictatorship, civil war and, more recently, a period of exasperating uncertainty. But for the results to be widely accepted, voters must be able to make an informed decision at the polls.

It might not happen. A compressed electoral calendar gives Libyans little time to learn about the more than 70 candidates. The campaign period was reduced to two weeks, due to the presence of foreign forces in the country and fears of a resumption of conflict. In addition, the country’s fractured media environment limits the availability of accurate information on applicants. Without the possibility of vigorous public debate, the election results will reflect – and perhaps exacerbate – the divisions that prevail in the country. Despite the obvious desire for peace and stability by most Libyans, the election could lead to more violence.

After the second Libyan civil war ended in October 2020, a United Nations-brokered peace process produced the country’s eighth transitional government since the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime in 2011. One of the main goals of this government was to organize Libya’s first popular vote for president. To support this process, my colleagues and I have spent most of the past year planning the country’s inaugural presidential debates.

For months, we have worked to convince leaders around the world that this election will only succeed if voters can compare the candidates and their views. The international community has spent millions of dollars over many years in unsuccessful attempts to promote Libya’s transition to a more stable democratic state. Supporting these debates would be a starting point for the international community to create the conditions for a lasting democracy in Libya.

After all, elections alone do not magically bring democracy. A massive effort is needed to support the country’s declining independent press, regulate its broadcasting sphere filled with hate speech, and empower Libyan civil society to convene the constructive conversations the country desperately needs. But our efforts have attracted little attention.

This must change. Libyans have become disenchanted with politics, which has become widely associated with corruption. And after decades of political chaos and delayed ballots, they’re skeptical that the next vote will change anything. In 2014, less than a fifth of eligible Libyan voters participated in parliamentary elections, and the country descended into civil war soon after. Many fear that the presidential election will produce the same result.

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They are not wrong to worry. Without a space for discussion between competing forces, candidates for the highest Libyan office have received little scrutiny. The country’s media are teeming with disinformation. Dozens of TV stations – many of which are funded by competing regional powers – report vastly different versions of the most basic facts. Candidates appear on friendly and partisan channels and are never faced with even simple questions about their vision for the country’s future and how they plan to rule.

However, this is not the case with local council elections. Unlike at the national level, local politics in Libya are successful. Since 2011, debate clubs have exploded in all regions, and they have organized dialogues between political camps. Over the past decade, more than 100 city councils have been peacefully elected. As the influence of militias undermines national institutions, at the local level, youth organizations and respected community elders have been able to create platforms for discussion. The presidential debates we are proposing build on this progress.

In planning the debates, my colleagues and I have tried to make it a credible source of information for voters. We have looked at similar debates around the world – from Belarus to Colombia to Jamaica – in crafting a plan for Libya. One decision we made was to keep the proceedings at bay, to avoid accusations of favoritism that would inevitably follow selecting a venue for an in-person event.

Authentic and unhindered political debate among presidential candidates is a crucial step towards the powerlessness of the armed factions and political elites currently vying for dominance. Continued conflict will be inevitable, regardless of which group is in power, until citizens trust and support the political process, and politicians know that election results will be respected.

The presidential debates offer all candidates the opportunity to provide real answers to the population – a brutal and necessary departure from the behind-the-scenes agreements and related unrest that have characterized Libyan politics. The debates are also an opportunity to reduce the risk of a legitimacy vacuum after the vote. As part of the conversation, we will ask candidates if they will accept the election results.

The holding of elections is a promising sign in a country which is still struggling to recover from ten years of political fragmentation and civil war. But elections alone are not enough. Libyan elections so far have been marked by low voter turnout, contested results and partisan violence. A true functioning democracy requires a lively and uncensored debate, equal opportunities to speak out and be heard and, above all, a culture of trust between citizens and the politicians who represent them.

The presidential debates are a first step towards creating these conditions in Libya. They deserve nothing less than the full support of the international community.

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