Third time's the charm? The UN's misguided obsession with elections in Libya

Third time's the charm? The UN's misguided obsession with elections in Libya
7 min read
02 Feb, 2022
After multiple failed attempts over the past ten years to establish a democracy for Libya using elections as the starting point, it is time for the United Nations to rethink its approach, writes Amanda Kadlec.
Head of Libya's national elections commission Imad al-Sayeh gives a press conference in the capital Tripoli, on 7 November 2021, as a translator converts the speech to sign language. [Getty]

The United Nations Security Council convened last week to reassess Libya's way forward following a long-anticipated, yet ultimately disrupted elections process. Few official statements about the other foundational elements of a democracy are so loudly and consistently the foremost item on the agenda. Still, and time and again, the UN and international actors continue to press nationwide elections as a kind of first-aid to resolve the country's deep-seated dysfunction. The next phantom date proposed by the UN envoy is June of this year – only five months away.

Now, in the purgatory between the failed election and much uncertainty about what comes next, Libya's same old powerbrokers are again posturing and playing shady politics to get their way. After multiple failed attempts over the past ten years to establish a democracy for Libya using elections as the starting point, it might be time to rethink the approach.

A decade ago this year, Libyans headed to the polls to elect the first post-Gaddafi parliament in what was hoped to be the pivotal step toward a full transition to democracy. With technical support from the UN, the self-appointed interim government that took Muammar Gaddafi's place drafted an 18-month roadmap to transition to a fully elected government. It was assumed that this newly empowered Libyan electorate's representatives would lay the framework for all other aspects of governance, like a constitution, judiciaries, and mechanisms to balance separate branches of power.

It did not work. 

"No one in power wants to let go of the power they have, and those seeking it will manoeuvre and cajole to snatch whatever they can"

The earliest signs of deep East-West divisions popped up even before the poll was held. Within a year, conflict among armed groups in Benghazi and Tripoli festered to a boiling point that eventually sparked a full-blown civil war a year after that. It took several more years to form a constitutional committee that would draft a legitimate governing document, still unratified and now contested in the current context. Polls held in 2014 to elect the east-based House of Representatives witnessed a paltry turnout skewed by eastern-region support. 

Eight years later, an expired mandate, and two competing western-region oriented interim governments later, it remains in place. More disconcertingly, some of its members use whatever levers of power the body has for the sole purpose of throwing wrenches in genuine reconciliation efforts.

No one in power wants to let go of the power they have, and those seeking it will manoeuvre and cajole to snatch whatever they can. Even determining candidate eligibility became deeply politicized and manipulated to a point beyond coherence.  Adding on top of that are dozens of factionalized, entrenched armed groups each with a preferred politician, thousands of mercenaries from half a dozen foreign countries, and endless supplies of high-grade weapons. Let us not forget a now assumed permanent strategic presence of Russia and Turkey and other foreign interests muddying those waters.

It does not take much to see that this is a dire environment in which to hold nationwide popular elections. And yet, the UN continues to press for them as though it is the only way to empower Libyans to choose a form of governance that works best for them. To date, elections have not produced democratic outcomes. And they will not without a balanced approach by international mediators that ultimately forces responsibility among the country's elites to find broad-based solutions for the country's ails, rather than another publicized power contest that deepens their pockets.

To achieve this is, of course, a daunting task. But it is not impossible. During the first half of 2021, momentum and process were moving in this direction after Libya's warring East-West factions convened to formally cease hostilities since they first began in 2014. The UN successfully pressed a select group of elite brokers in a pivotal moment of transition to hammer out an agreement establishing a roadmap. Even though the outcome was flawed, the strategy worked. Elites who lost respected the process and accepted their respective defeats.

Sort of. For a while. Until the pressure was off and an opportunity arose to derail it.

The ultimately failed roadmap focused nearly exclusively on elections as the starting point, just as they did in 2012 and 2014. Results in each instance have been short-lived and produced something worse than what came before. Libya's multiple spoilers simply, and quite consistently, wait for opportunities to step in and manipulate the process to suit personal and factional ends. What could become of a Libyan state never happens.

Perspectives

For democratic processes to succeed in Libya – or anywhere else in the world – there must be a genuine acceptance that there are winners and losers in a contest, and the losers have to accept the outcome until the next poll. This fundamental 'rule of the game' is losing ground worldwide, but it is a particularly irrelevant matter in Libya. If elections are held now or in six months or a year, it is highly unlikely that Libya will turn into a democracy as a result.

Many ask, if not elections, then what other options are on the table?  Unfortunately, this is the wrong question and a misguided approach to problem-solving.

The rote anticipation that elections will set in motion a favourable outcome for Libya is like expecting a band-aid to stop a severed artery from bleeding. To consistently apply the same, ineffective tool for a situation far exceeding the capacity of that tool is folly.

Instead, the UN must ask what the ultimate purpose of elections is. If it is people power, then elections have proven ill-equipped to resolve this problem in Libya. If it is to engender a stable state, the answer is similar. Yet, elections are still used as the primary means to get Libya on the road to well-being – even though the fundamental equalizing processes and institutions that are required to make elections viable long-term are woefully lacking.

 Libya is in a stage of elite bargaining that needs to reach a greater degree of coherence and agreement before polling will bear the results of democratic governance that is hoped for. Every spoiler potential is already in full force. The elections process itself has been habituated as means for elites to bargain for loots and little else. Rather than compulsively making elections the focal point for negotiation among elites, pressure those same elites to bargain with the same level of intensity to establish other functions of a transitioning government like independent courts, policing bodies, and a parliamentary system.

The only problem is that everyone knows that Libya's elites will never accomplish this. They will never work in the favour of the Libyan people. At the same time, no one seems to know what else to do except call for another popular vote.

I do not pretend to have an answer. It is a catch-22 and the situation in Libya is intractable.

"It is time to face this reality and for the UN and every international body involved to stop, take a deep breath, and get some distance from the problem"

What is clear based on repeated evidence, however, is that elections processes amid such instability simply do not produce a stable result. Elections to this point have simply provided corrupt elites with more opportunities to open vaults flush with cash to which only they have the keys, all while denying all Libyans of the governance they deserve.

It is time to face this reality and for the UN and every international body involved to stop, take a deep breath, and get some distance from the problem. Deviate from this failed pattern and start thinking more creatively about how to establish an elite bargain that checks power concentration so that voting can be held in a free, equitable, and fair environment.

Then, and only then – should Libya's elites get to that point – will elections produce an outcome that places power back into the hands of the people. 

Amanda B. Kadlec served on the UN Security Council Panel of Experts for Libya from 2019-2020. She is a doctoral candidate in the Security Studies Department at King's College London exploring the impact of global power competition on democratization in transitioning states.

Follow her on Twitter: @amandabkadlec

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.