Libyans vote in their first free parliamentary elections
Published Saturday, July 7, 2012 6:16AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, July 7, 2012 10:20PM EDT
Libyans held their first free parliamentary elections Saturday, but the jubilant mood was dampened slightly by protests that left one person dead.
The burning of ballots and attacks on polling centres in the country's east caused disruptions before the polls finally closed.
A protester was killed and two wounded in a gun battle between anti-election demonstrators and security forces in the eastern city of Ajdabiya, according to the head of the election commission.
Nouri al-Abari said the polling centre targeted by the protesters was later reopened and voting commenced normally.
Results of Saturday’s vote are expected within a week.
A spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Saturday Canada notes the “significance” of the election.
“We are inspired by all who, after battling tyranny and believing a better, brighter future was indeed possible, today turned out to cast a ballot and have a say in who should lead the country forward,” Rick Roth said in a statement provided to CTV News.
“Although Libya still faces many challenges in the coming months, Canada stands with the Libyan people as they continue to work to entrench the values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law for all after more than four decades of dictatorial, one-man rule.”
Moving Libya away from one-man rule hasn’t been easy, with different tribal factions in the east-west divide of the oil-rich country facing off against each other since the fall of the Gadhafi regime last year.
Complicating matters are the efforts by Islamists to assert power in Libya’s leadership vacuum.
The election has its detractors as well, who say the country is a long way from a true democracy or any kind of peaceful transition in spite of the vote.
“Well, it’s going to be a Libyan form of democracy,” deputy editor of The North Africa Journal Alessandro Bruno told CTV News Channel Saturday.
With 142 different parties running for seats there’s going to be an extreme divergence of opinion, he said.
“In the middle of all this, the tribal problems haven’t been solved,” Bruno said.
In the oil-rich southeast, there’s daily tribal violence that’s resulting in deaths, not just injuries, he said.
The east is peppered with “a lot of radical Islamist elements” who have returned to the country after fighting U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and are running for seats, Bruno said.
“So, we’ve got these characters as well,” he said. “I’m just struggling to imagine how this is going to work.”
Another concern is the increasing emergence of veils and other forms of Islamist dress amongst women that he’s never seen in Libya until now.
Bruno worries an Islamist-based government would strip women of freedoms they had under Gadhafi’s regime.
Lines formed outside polling centres more than an hour before they opened in the capital of Tripoli, with security forces standing guard, searching voters and election workers as they entered.
“I have a strange but beautiful feeling today,” dentist Adam Thabet said as he waited his turn to cast a ballot.
“We are free at last after years of fear. We knew this day would come, but we were afraid it would take a lot longer.”
The election for a 200-seat parliament, which will be tasked with forming a new government, is a key milestone after a bitter civil war that ended Gadhafi's four-decade rule.
But the nation of six million people has experienced a rocky transition since he was killed by rebel forces in his home city of Sirte in late October.
Since then armed militias have operated independently, refusing to be brought under the umbrella of a national army, and deepening regional and tribal divisions erupt into violence with alarming frequency.
There’s also growing resentment in the east - where the uprising began - over perceived domination by Tripoli in the west of the desert nation.
Some easterners back a boycott of the election and on Saturday protesters torched ballot boxes in 14 out of 19 polling centres in the eastern town of Ajdabiya, said Ibrahim Fayed, a former rebel commander in the area.
On the eve of the vote, gunmen shot down a helicopter carrying polling materials near the eastern city of Benghazi, birthplace of last year's revolution, killing one election worker on board, according to Saleh Darhoub, a spokesman for the ruling National Transitional Council.
The crew survived after a crash landing.
The violence continued Saturday, with protesters, some armed, attacking polling centres in the early hours in the eastern cities of Ajdabiya, Brega and Ras Lanouf, ransacking them and setting ballot papers ablaze.
Protesters attacked a polling station in Benghazi only to be driven back by voters who fired their own weapons in the air indicating the ever-present lawlessness of the country, independent candidate Faiza Ali said.
“Enough with the bloodshed,” she said.
Nouri al-Abar, the head of the election commission, told reporters in Tripoli that 94 per cent of polling centres nationwide were open but acknowledged that “security conditions” prevented ballots from reaching some areas and ballots were destroyed in other cases.
The uprising against Gadhafi was inspired by the Arab Spring revolts that led to the successful ouster of authoritarian leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and later Yemen.
But it morphed into outright civil war as armed rebels battled Libyan regime forces for months.
Islamist parties also have gained influence in Libya and other nations following the ouster of authoritarian regimes run by strongmen like Gadhafi and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak.
There are four major contenders in the Libyan race, ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood-linked party and another Islamist coalition on one end of the spectrum to a secular-minded party led by a Western-educated former rebel prime minister on the other.
Despite the divisions and unrest, the prevailing mood was one of triumph.
“We are celebrating today and we want the whole world to celebrate with us,” Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib said after he cast his ballot in Tripoli.
Many in Libya's oil-rich east feel slighted by the election laws issued by the National Transitional Council, the body that led the rebel cause during the civil war and assumed power after Gadhafi's fall.
The laws allocate the east fewer than a third of the parliamentary seats, with the rest going to the western region that includes Tripoli and the sparsely settled south.
Flush with money, the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction party has led one of the best organized and most visible election campaigns, and is hoping to become a political force in post-Gadhafi Libya like the Islamists of Egypt and Tunisia.
Three other parties also are expected to perform well: Former prime minister Mahmoud Jibril's secular Alliance of National Forces, former jihadist and rebel commander Abdel-Hakim Belhaj's Al-Watan and the National Front party, one of Libya's oldest political groups, known for organizing several failed assassination attempts against Gadhafi.
With files from The Associated Press and a report from CTV’s Daniele Hamamdjian