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Libya’s electoral limbo: The crisis of legitimacy

Libya’s electoral limbo: The crisis of legitimacy
Gamal Abdel Nasser Mosque, Tripoli. Photo: Ziad Fhema/Flickr

Eleven years after the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi, the situation in Libya remains extremely volatile. Elections planned for 24 December last year did not take place and the electoral process collapsed. As a result, Libya entered yet another period of deep political crisis, at the heart of which is (once again) a struggle over how to create a legitimate, national government.

Libya now has two rival governments—the Government of National Unity (GNU) in the west and the Government of National Stability (GNS) in the east—both of which claim the right to govern. The tensions between them (and their respective foreign backers) threaten the return of violence. With the United Nations-sponsored road map for Libya’s political transition set to expire in June, the future of the transition remains uncertain. Ultimately, the costs of this crisis are borne by the Libyan people, who are robbed of the opportunity to choose their own leaders and institutions. This exclusion fuels disillusionment with the electoral process and erodes people’s hopes of leaving behind a decade of conflict.  

From ceasefire to electoral process collapse

In October 2020, warring parties signed a ceasefire after the military stalemate that followed Turkey’s deployment of troops in Libya to counter the Libyan National Army’s offensive on Tripoli, led by Khalifa Haftar. In line with the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) road map sponsored by the UN, the new interim GNU was tasked with organizing both presidential and parliamentary elections in December 2021. As Libya was going to hold presidential elections for the first time in its history, everything from eligibility criteria to the powers of the president and the executive branch was yet to be decided. In a sense, Libya needed to build an entire political system from scratch.

The LPDF’s legal committee was supposed to formulate a constitutional basis for holding presidential and parliamentary elections, but the process stalled in the summer of 2021. At the same time, the House of Representatives adopted its own election laws, disregarding due process and agreements calling for consultation and consensus. These laws were not only problematic in terms of procedure, but also in terms of content, as issues such as the eligibility criteria for presidential candidates engendered controversy. Nonetheless, the process went ahead, even as it carried the seeds of its own failure.

The period leading up to the elections was also marked by chaos and confusion, with more than 90 candidates registering to run for president. The High National Election Commission (HNEC) failed to present a shortlist of candidates, largely due to the judiciary having the final say in eligibility disputes. This gave rise to a series of appeals and counter appeals, with different courts accepting or rejecting different candidates. Some factions even deployed armed men outside courthouses to prevent appeals from going ahead. Eventually, the HNEC announced that it was unable to organize the elections, which were adjourned sine die.

A protracted crisis of legitimacy

The collapse of the electoral process marked the return of contested legitimacy as the main feature of Libyan politics and the transitional process. Although the process leading to the appointment of the interim GNU suffered from its own legitimacy and representation flaws, it did succeed in breaking the political deadlock. And the fact that the GNU was recognized by Libya’s opposing parties did, for some time, slightly improve the situation of contested legitimacy that had plagued its predecessor, the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Fayez al-Sarraj, since 2016. Unlike the GNA, which was mainly supported by institutions in Tripoli, the GNU received the support of the House of Representatives in Tobruk. This allowed the country to turn the page on rival governments in the east and the west, and enabled Libyans to begin contemplating the prospect of a way out of conflict. Hopes were raised for the unification of Libyan institutions and the rebuilding of the Libyan state.

Beneath the surface, however, tensions and power struggles continued, and they came to light again with the collapse of the electoral process. This revealed just how fragile and limited the legitimacy of the GNU was. As a transitional body whose primary mission was to organize elections and then hand over authority to an elected body, the GNU has been called into question after failing to deliver on its mandate. Moreover, the fact that the interim prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, has not managed to rally support in the east and the south of Libya has further undermined his government’s claim to represent the Libyan people. Perceptions of widespread corruption have not helped either.

Other Libyan bodies and institutions also suffer from legitimacy problems. The current House of Representatives, for example, is the product of the controversial elections in 2014 that led to the division of the country in the first place. In addition, it repeatedly sought to oust the Dbeibeh-led GNU in a competing claim for legitimacy and ultimately appointed Fathi Bashagha as the interim prime minister of a rival government, the GNS, which was unilaterally established in February 2022. However, as this government was not established by consensus, has not been able to enter Tripoli and is not internationally recognized, it is yet another expression of the legitimacy crisis rather than a solution to it.

Exiting the legitimacy trap

There are many criticisms levelled against elections as a political transition mechanism in conflict-affected contexts. Some focus on whether the right conditions are in place for organizing elections in such contexts and highlight the risks of increased tensions that voting might bring. Others point out that the international community tends to adopt an expedient approach to state-building by rushing the electoral process.

These criticisms are pertinent in the case of Libya, as the 2021 electoral debacle clearly shows. Nevertheless, elections remain the only way to end the legitimacy crisis that has undermined all efforts to find a lasting solution to the conflict so far. The Libyan transition is stuck in a vicious cycle of rival governments, fragmented authority and political divisions, and the only way to break the cycle is by electing new institutions that embody popular legitimacy.

The key challenge is therefore still to get the different factions to agree on a constitutional framework that would allow elections to take place. Since the elections collapsed, different sides have espoused various one-sided road maps. The House of Representatives proposes first amending the 2011 Constitutional Declaration. The GNU continues to cling to the UN-sponsored road map, asserting that power will only be handed over to an elected body. Prime Minister Dbeibeh has announced plans to organize parliamentary elections before June 2022, leaving the adoption of a permanent constitution and the organization of presidential elections to future elected bodies. Yet with the prospects for organizing elections before the June deadline becoming increasingly dim, Dbeibeh’s position is widely perceived as an attempt to stay in power.

Compounding the problems even further is the fact that the very elites and institutions that elections are supposed to renew are in charge of organizing them. Unless they can maintain their positions and power in any future political configuration, they have little incentive to refrain from obstructing the process.

In the most recent efforts to exit the stalemate, the UN Special Adviser on Libya, Stephanie Williams, has sought to build trust and broker some form of agreement between different actors. She has launched an initiative to form a joint commission between the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and the Tripoli-based High State Council to formulate a constitutional basis for the elections. The former initially ignored the initiative, but later joined meetings in Cairo, Egypt. However, the talks concluded without consensus being reached.

Breaking the cycle

As things currently stand, reconciling differences between the main power brokers remains indispensable and a power-sharing pact between the elites may be the only way forward. Of course, this in itself will not solve the fundamental problem of legitimacy. In fact, in a sense it will be a repetition of the GNU initiative, as such a pact will once again only have limited legitimacy. However, passing through a stage of limited legitimacy is perhaps the only route to popular legitimacy obtained through elections.

Should an elite power-sharing pact be adopted, it is important that it serves only as a means to enable elections. It needs to be limited in time and safeguards must be established to prevent abuse. There is of course no guarantee that an elite deal will be more successful than the GNU initiative in delivering elections. One can only hope that it is and that the Libyan people will have a chance to finally choose their institutions and exercise their rights.


Amal Bourhrous is a Researcher in the SIPRI Middle East and North Africa Programme.