Throw out the playbook for Libya’s elections

Sean Kane writes: After over 40 years of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Jamahiriya — a by design stateless society of purported direct rule by the popular masses — Libya’s political transition was always going to be sui generis. Other Arab autocrats may have subverted elections and ignored their constitutions, but in most cases at least the motions of representative democracy existed. This was not the case in Libya, where the law organizing the country’s first elections is scheduled for publication this weekend. As Othman El-Mugirhy, the chair of the committee that drafted the law eloquently put it, “Libya has no institutions, it is a state of ashes.”

One legacy of the almost perpetual administrative flux that Qaddafi’s unique governing model engendered is that individuals rather than political parties will likely contest Libya’s forthcoming elections. This has all sorts of unusual consequences, not least of which is potentially turning on its head the widespread belief in the region that early elections favor the Muslim Brotherhood.

Political parties come in for a particularly hard time in Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Green Book, which lays out his Third Universal Theory (the Brother Leader’s proposed alternative to capitalism and communism). Describing political parties as the abortion of democracy and their members as traitors, the Green Book makes the case that parties split society by ensuring “the rule of the part over the whole” and are the “contemporary model of dictatorship” intended to rob people of their right to govern themselves directly.

The decades of demonization of political parties by Qaddafi have left a lasting impact on the Libyan political scene. Many of the nascent political entities in the new Libya seem to prefer to call themselves “movements” or “alliances” rather than use the word party, which still frequently draws a visceral negative reaction.

Countrywide focus group research conducted in Libya by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in November 2011 tends to confirm this anecdotal impression. NDI found participants’ reactions to the idea of political parties “range from ignorance to skepticism to outright hostility.” Many were concerned that political parties are potentially divisive and could cause conflict among Libyans at a time when the country needs to be united. One participant repeated word for word a Green Book bromide that the larger the number of parties, the greater the divisions and struggle within society.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that the electoral law prepared by Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) is widely expected to propose a system in which voters would choose from individual candidates rather than party lists in selecting representatives for the country’s constitutional assembly. The closest international analogue to this type of electoral system is that used in Afghanistan, where its application has contributed to a parliament of individuals rather than parties.

In Libya, such a system makes it likely that candidates in June’s elections for the country’s constitutional assembly will rely on social institutions other than parties to attract votes. In other words, tribal, regional, and family networks are likely to trump political and ideological visions in the coming polls.

This has real implications for the prospects of Libya’s best-organized political party and the only one that scored name recognition in the NDI focus groups — the Muslim Brotherhood. Simply put, being the only political party that ordinary people can name might not be such a good thing among a population that has been acculturated to view parties as synonymous with hidden agendas and narrow interests.

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One thought on “Throw out the playbook for Libya’s elections

  1. Christopher Hoare

    Perhaps Quadhafi’s intention was the ultimate libertarianism…an anarchistic model, which he corrupted by he and his croneys being the final arbiters of the imagined opinion expressed by the jamahiria. Any overlord in an anarchist state must by definition be a dictator.

    However, having no partisan model of electoral poiltics may give rise to any number of unique outcomes of Libya’s next few years. There is still room to look forward to the Libyans creating something new that works. Lord knows—electorial politics in the West looks to be way off the rails.

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