A woman casts her ballot during a vote to elect a constitution-drafting panel in Tripoli. Picture: Ismail Zitouny


Tripoli - Libyans went to the polls on Thursday to elect a constituent assembly in the latest milestone in the chaotic political transition from the ousted dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi.

But there was none of the voter enthusiasm that marked Libya's first free election in July 2012 as public frustration mounts over the post-Gaddafi government's failure to restore order.

Just 1.1 million of 3.4 million eligible voters bothered to register compared to more than 2.7 million 19 months ago, and that only after several extensions to the deadline.

A threat by powerful former rebel militias to dissolve the interim General National Congress elected in 2012 ramped up pressure on the weak central government on the eve of the vote.

In the more than two years since Gaddafi was captured and killed, former rebel brigades armed with heavy weapons looted from his arsenals have carved out fiefdoms across the sprawling country, with many refusing demands to disarm or join the armed forces.

The persistent lawlessness was highlighted by the brief abduction of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan by former rebel militia in the capital last October.

The new charter is to cover key issues such as Libya's system of government, the status of ethnic minorities and the role of Islamic sharia law.

But Libya is to go ahead with elections to a new transitional authority rather than wait for the constitution to be finalised.

Following angry street protests over its decision to extend its mandate until the end of the year, the GNC agreed on Sunday to organise early elections to a replacement body.

Polls were to open from 06h00 GMT until 17h00 GMT in the election for a 60-member assembly tasked with drawing up a new constitution.

In principle, all of the 692 hopefuls are standing as individuals, as political parties have been barred from fielding candidates.

They include 73 women. The assembly will have at least six female members as six seats are reserved for women.

Another six seats are reserved for members of Libya's three main ethnic minority groups - the Berbers, Toubous and Tuareg.

But the two Berber seats will go unfilled as the main Berber organisations called a boycott to protest the failure of the interim authorities to guarantee the community, which played a major role in the 2011 uprising, a bigger say in drawing up the new charter.

The Supreme Council of Berbers in Libya declared Thursday a day of mourning and asked people to wear black in protest, adding that it would not recognise the new constitution.

The UN Support Mission in Libya expressed its backing for the “long awaited achievement” of the assembly election.

“It calls upon all Libyans to contribute positively to this democratic process and to provide the suitable atmosphere for this important event that paves the way towards putting the basic foundations for a modern Libyan state,” UN envoy Tarek Mitri said in a statement.

The 2012 election was marred by some violence on polling day, particularly in the restive east, a stronghold of hardline Islamist groups.

The interior ministry said at least 25 security personnel would be deployed in each of the North African nation's 1 500 or so polling stations on Thursday.