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16.09.2021 Libya

Controversy over voting law overshadows Libya election

By Jihad Dorgham
People gather with Libyan national flags at the Martyrs' Square in the centre of Tripoli on August 20, to mark the 10th anniversary of the city's capture from the forces of former leader Moamer Kadhafi.  By Mahmud TURKIA (AFP/File)
LISTEN SEP 16, 2021
People gather with Libyan national flags at the Martyrs' Square in the centre of Tripoli on August 20, to mark the 10th anniversary of the city's capture from the forces of former leader Moamer Kadhafi. By Mahmud TURKIA (AFP/File)

Less than a year since a landmark ceasefire, war-torn Libya is preparing for elections, but controversy over a voting law poses a new threat to the UN-led peace process.

Parliament speaker Aguila Saleh last week ratified legislation that would govern the country's presidential elections, set for December 24.

But the final version of the bill had not been presented to the assembly for a vote.

Critics charge that Saleh bypassed due process and pushed through a law favouring his ally, the eastern-based military strongman Khalifa Haftar.

Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the Tobruk-based Libyan House of Representatives.  By Abdullah DOMA (AFP/File) Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the Tobruk-based Libyan House of Representatives. By Abdullah DOMA (AFP/File)

They cite a clause stipulating that military officials may stand in presidential polls, on condition that they withdraw from their roles three months beforehand -- and that, if unsuccessful, they will receive backpay.

That would allow for a presidential run by Haftar, whose forces control eastern Libya, where the parliament is based, as well as parts of the south.

Haftar reached a UN-brokered ceasefire with western Libyan forces last October.

The lull in violence and a UN-led transition process have sparked hopes that Libya could move on after a decade of violence that followed the fall and killing of dictator Moamer Kadhafi in a 2011 revolt.

Libyan special forces trained by the Turkish military gather at a training camp in the coastal city al-Khums, east of the capital Tripoli, on August 15, during a visit by members of the country's presidential council.  By Mahmud TURKIA (AFP/File) Libyan special forces trained by the Turkish military gather at a training camp in the coastal city al-Khums, east of the capital Tripoli, on August 15, during a visit by members of the country's presidential council. By Mahmud TURKIA (AFP/File)

But analyst Khaled Al-Montasir warned that the latest move by Saleh, which bypassed state bodies in western Libya as well as members of his own assembly, could spark a return to fighting.

"The parliament can't pass a law on presidential elections on its own, especially given that there are still tensions and disputes among various parties," he said.

"There needs to be agreement over any law, given the current delicate situation."

'Fait accompli'

Libya has seen months of relative peace since the October ceasefire, with a new unity government taking power early this year, charged with leading the country until the December elections.

But the UN-led Libyan dialogue forum missed a July deadline to agree on a legal framework for the polls.

Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar, on the right, pictured with Jan Kubis, head of the UN Support Mission in Libya.  By - (LNA War Information Division/AFP/File) Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar, on the right, pictured with Jan Kubis, head of the UN Support Mission in Libya. By - (LNA War Information Division/AFP/File)

"Saleh is presenting everyone with a fait accompli," said Libya expert Jalel Harchaoui.

"While his methods are problematic, he knows very well that he's filling a void."

Some Libyans, outside powers and even the UN could be tempted to accept the law, despite it being passed "on the sly and in an arbitrary manner, without a real vote", Harchaoui added.

UN envoy Jan Kubis told the Security Council on Friday that Saleh had "informed" him that "the presidential electoral law was already adopted" -- although he noted that other state bodies had complained that they had not been consulted before it was passed.

France, seen as favouring Haftar, has welcomed the law as valid, while other states have been more cautious.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of neighbouring Egypt, a key Haftar backer, on Thursday "stressed the importance of the upcoming Libyan elections in respecting and activating the free will of the... Libyan people", according to a statement following a visit by Dbeibah.

Libya's interim prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah.  By Matt Dunham (POOL/AFP/File) Libya's interim prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. By Matt Dunham (POOL/AFP/File)

Senior US official Derek Chollet, who met interim Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah in Tripoli on Wednesday, said the law was "provides a sound basis for the way forward".

"We ask only one thing of Libyan leaders: that they contribute constructively on what is on offer rather than tear it down while offering nothing instead," he told journalists.

But Harchaoui said that either scenario was likely to bolster Saleh.

"Either his methods will be rejected as invalid, and presidential elections will not be held in the coming months, meaning he remains president of parliament," he said. "Or elections will indeed take place -- but according to rules set by Saleh."

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