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Libyans will vote in their first free national poll in more than half a century tomorrow amid fears that violence could taint an election meant to usher in an interim national assembly and draw a line under Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year autocratic reign.
Voters will select a 200-member assembly that will choose a cabinet to replace the self-appointed interim government. The new chamber will also pick a new prime minister and help draft a constitution aimed at turning Libya into a unified, stable state. Many of the 3 700 candidates have strong Islamic agendas.
The election will be closely watched around the world by both supporters and critics of Nato’s bombing campaign that helped underpin an “Arab Spring” uprising which ended Gaddafi’s dictatorship and finally claimed his life.
Yet for many of the 2.7 million registered voters, excitement about a first taste of democracy is mingled with fear that it will be hijacked by the militias, often with regional loyalties, who have flourished amid prevailing lawlessness.
“This is a new beginning for us, we are learning democracy,” said Tarek Mabrouk, a shopkeeper in Tripoli. “We all hope that it will go well so we can move forward.”
Once the country’s new constitution is drafted, a referendum will be held, and if it establishes a parliamentary system, a full legislative poll will be held within six months.
While the election is designed to produce a government with a stronger mandate to rule than the current ex-rebel National Transitional Council, the credibility of the result will be questionable if voters are too scared to turn out or if post-vote disputes degenerate into gunbattles among rival factions.
In some areas, such as the isolated southern district of Kufra in the Sahara desert, tribal clashes are so fierce that election observers will be unable to visit, and some question whether the vote can proceed in certain areas there.
Less than a year after rebel fighters overran the capital, Tripoli, with little resistance, Libya is a country enjoying freedoms that would have been unimaginable during the four decades before the uprising, but which are mitigated by instability and sporadic violence.
While Tripoli can go for days without disturbances, turf wars between heavily armed rival militias can explode into gunfights within seconds, while regional tensions that were suppressed under Gaddafi are now dangerously exposed.
Last week’s storming of an election office in the eastern city of Benghazi by armed protesters demanding greater powers for the region showed not only how far Libya has to go to foster national unity, but also underscored the risk of unrest on voting day.
“The Libyan authorities should not make the mistake of underestimating their ability to disrupt the political process,” the International Crisis Group think-tank said of such protests, arguing that eastern demands for greater autonomy must sooner or later be addressed.
The weakness of the police and the army was demonstrated only last month when militia fighters occupied the runway at Tripoli’s international airport for hours after they mistakenly feared their leader had been seized by security forces.
Yet while such incidents will do little to encourage potential investors in a country with Africa’s largest proven oil reserves, many observers argue that Libya has bounced back from the conflict more quickly than expected. Oil production has recovered and is now close to pre-war output levels of 1.6 million barrels a day.