By Rhiannon Smith

In brief, the elections planned in December, as part of the French-led peace initiative in Libya, are very unlikely to heal the underlying social, political and economic rifts that are driving division and conflict in the country.

Elections can only facilitate non-violent transfers of power if the electoral process is supported by a broader democratic structure and a coherent institutional framework.

This requires a justice system that can enforce accountability, an education system that encourages freedom of thought, and a security architecture that allows citizens to vote without fearing for their lives.

Furthermore, in order for elections to stand a chance of healing social divides, all parties must accept the election results and allow elected officials to pass legislation, exert a monopoly over force, and hold the state’s purse strings.

These conditions do not exist in Libya at present. Instead, Libyan authorities are working within an unrealistically short timeline (less than four months at present) during which an electoral law must be passed, a referendum on the draft constitution organised, the draft accepted, and parliamentary and presidential elections held.

So far none of the technical prerequisites for elections have been met and achieving them by December seems a near impossible feat.

If workarounds are found and elections forced through regardless, the outcome is likely to be another period of escalated conflict, confusion and chaos.

The victors of any election are likely to become Libya’s new, internationally-recognized powerbrokers – with the opportunity to shape Libya’s political structures to benefit themselves and disadvantage their rivals for years to come.

In particular, the victors will have control over the state’s vast economic resources.

This lack of clarity over what powers the newly elected officials will hold, combined with a lack of trust that elected officials can or will be held accountable for their actions, is creating fresh drivers of conflict and in some cases deepening existing divisions in Libya.

For actors who currently have access to power and wealth, the priority is to protect their positions if, or when, elections happen.

For actors who are currently excluded from power, the priority is to shake up the status quo in order to establish greater influence through ‘facts on the ground’ prior to elections happening.

The recent fighting which has engulfed Tripoli can be interpreted in this vein, with militias from outside the capital attempting to break the stranglehold the Tripoli militias have on the country’s most important state institutions.

Recent Libyan history shows that control of such resources can be used to leverage political alliances, international legitimacy, and military dominance – and win elections.

In conclusion, Libya currently lacks the democratic institutions and frameworks that would allow elections to be a unifying force.

Holding elections in these conditions can only temporarily paper over the cracks, and threatens to accentuate divisions rather than heal them.


Rhiannon Smith is the Managing Director of Libya-Analysis® and She leads Libya-Analysis’s research and consultancy projects and regularly delivers high level briefings on Libya to government entities, international organisations, and academic forums. Rhiannon has authored or co-authored several think tank reports, journal articles, and commentary pieces on Libya, and she regularly gives television and radio interviews. Rhiannon lived in Tripoli, Libya from 2010 to 2014 and speaks Arabic.





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