Saturday morning, 2.8 million registered voters in Libya went to the polls to choose a parliament for the first time since 1965.
One woman standing in line to vote said she was filled with ‘indescribable joy’ at this opportunity to participate in democracy. A Reuters correspondent tweets about tears in the eyes of women voters; one says “Libya is free.” Some women were wearing Libyan flag scarves on their heads. It should be remembered that thousands of Libyans died making a revolution so this day could come, and over the years thousands of Libyans cycled through Qaddafi’s jails– many of them now feel their sacrifice was worthwhile.
Early reports on Saturday morning indicated that the polling stations opened normally, and satellite television showed people standing peacefully in line, both in Tripoli and in Benghazi, through 10 am. Some reports were that participation was light in Benghazi in the morning).
Aljazeera Arabic reported that the opening voting went calmly in former Qaddafi strongholds like Sirte and Sabha during the first couple of hours. I saw a photo on twitter of proud voters in Tobruk not so far from the Egyptian border in the east.
People in Tripoli tweeted that the lines were unexpectedly long in the morning (suggesting initial high turnout), and volunteers handed out sweets and provided water to the voters. An enthusiastic public was saying “God is great.” People honked their horns in the downtown area around Martyrs’ Square.
There are 3000 candidates for 200 seats in this foundational parliament, and, remarkably, some 500 of them are women. When I was in Benghazi in late May, I interviewed a headmistress of a school who is running for parliament on a relatively secular platform. The welter of candidates is confusing, and the distribution of party and individual seats is confusing. But the level of participation is a promising sign. That so many registered, and so many are running, shows enthusiasm for the process. The Muslim Brotherhood party is expected to do very well, though there is a school of thought that maintains that none of the main parties will get a majority.
In the east, there are small groups who want greater provincial autonomy from Tripoli, who have been making some trouble. On Friday, someone took some shots at a helicopter ferrying voting material to the east, forcing it to land and killing an election worker. A handful of militiamen showed up at refineries in Ras Lanouf and elsewhere, requesting that they be shut down as a protest against continued strong central government. The managers of the refineries complied, to avoid unnecessary trouble (they probably figure than an election protest is unlikely to last much longer than election day). But note that only about 15 armed men are said to have been in the party of protesters at Ras Lanouf. All of this trouble I’ve mentioned has been made by a very small group of people. And, while it is nervous-making to have armed men and mobs acting in these ways, there is less disorder than one might think from these wire service reports. In countries like India, election violence routinely results in deaths.
Mostly what the incidents of disorder show is that the National Transitional Council is not very good at planning out how to deploy its police and military to protect people and official offices. That is why the prospect of an elected prime minister who might be on the ball is attractive.
On the other side of the ledger, on Friday there was a big demonstration of several thousand in front of the courthouse in Benghazi, in favor of national unity. The states’ rights group could only muster 300 for a counter demonstration. Supporters of strong central government said they would not let the minor faction of decentralizers disrupt the vote. Some voters interviewed in Benghazi said that the helicopter incident convinced them to vote against candidates seeking greater states’ rights, so the violence may be backfiring for the decentralizers. (This information is from a fine article in the Libya Herald, which google.news appears not to index; few in the West are mentioning the big pro-government demonstration in Benghazi).