By Alexander A. Decina, Darine El Hage and Nathaniel L. Wilson
Libyans need new elections to produce a competent and electorally legitimate government that the international community can support in navigating the myriad challenges the country faces….That said, elections themselves present a major risk.
If Elections Cannot Be Held
Given the risk that elections entail for multiple factions, Libya may be unable to hold elections in 2018 or 2019. Should this be the case, the trajectory the country takes will largely depend on whether obstinate actors use political or violent methods to block the elections.
If Libyan factions use political tactics to block progress on elections—which would most likely manifest as eastern or western factions refusing to come to agreement on election laws in the HoR-HCS joint committee or the HoR refusing to pass election laws should they come through that committee—then the High National Election Commission would be unable to move forward and conduct elections.
The question for Libya would then be one of whether the status quo can hold. For now, especially after the defeat of Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, the Islamic State in Sirte, and other Salafi jihadists in Derna, the security situation seems to have improved since the current conflict began in 2014.
And although eastern and western factions may not be able to overcome political impasses, they have come to agreements necessary to continue selling oil and increase their output.
Libyans were able to increase oil output to around 1.05 million barrels per day as of April 2018, up from a low of 128,000 barrels in December 2014. That these indicators have improved, however, does not guarantee Libya will stay on this trajectory.
Libya’s increased output is based on precarious arrangements in which the GNA, the sole entity legally able to sell oil internationally, must constantly negotiate and renegotiate with the competing militias that control oil fields and infrastructure.
Many of these militias are otherwise opposed to the GNA and use their control of Libya’s resources to undermine its ability to act as a government.
As Libya’s competing political bodies continue losing what semblance of legitimacy they may have had—and continue to struggle to extend their influence beyond the buildings and hotels that house them—local militias, rather than state institutions, have the greatest say over whether Libya will be able to continue outputting oil and maintain the status quo.
As this quasi-anarchic state becomes more entrenched, the chances of breakdown and renewed wider conflict will increase.
Should the HoR and the HCS come to election laws and allow the High National Election Commission to proceed, it is possible that powerful factions, on seeing polling and fearing losses, will engage in new military campaigns that result in violence that impedes the HNEC from carrying out the elections.
With his power in the east and with alliances with western militias, Haftar likely has the greatest capacity to project some degree of force across the country.
Meanwhile, in western Libya, Misratan militias so far have been more cooperative with the UN Support Mission in Libya’s efforts and the GNA, but if they fear losing standing in the elections, they could block voting in significant portions of western Libya—including Tripoli.
Tripoli factions and Zintani factions also have considerable capacity should they attempt to forcibly block elections.
If elections cannot be held because of military campaigns and widespread violence, Libya’s fragmentation will deepen and become even harder to reverse.
Because no elections will have taken place and no faction will have electoral legitimacy, the international community will struggle to consolidate its support behind the right actors and prevent spoilers.
If outside countries continue their support for disparate and competing actors, Libyan factions of all stripes will feel little if any incentive to comport with UNSMIL’s peace process.
Libya’s messy conflict will drag on and could easily become more complex and more violent.
Even if violence does not intensify, in a best-case scenario Libya’s elections will not be a significant step forward, but rather a horizontal step to reestablish an electoral body with which the international community can engage.
If elections succeed in creating a new government, an array of crucial issues will remain unresolved, the most pressing of which will be factions boycotting the new government, the lack of a constitution (if one is not passed before elections) and the highly fragmented and contentious security sector.
Consolidating Competing Governments
As noted, depending on the election results, parties that perform poorly in the parliamentary elections may boycott the new government and retain their existing structures.
Thus, elections could easily produce a new government that simply enters the fray and struggles to compete with Libya’s existing defunct governments rather than replacing them.
Whether these spoilers can be brought into the fold depends on domestic considerations as well as levels of external support.
Domestically, the new government’s willingness to accommodate its competitors and provide them access to newly established patronage networks (or its lack of willingness to do so) will have considerable impact on disparate parties’ propensities to buy into the new system and cooperate with one another.
Whether these spoilers can be contained will also depend on whether external countries maintain support to their allied militias. Abrogating illicit support for militias operating outside the new government will be crucial to its viability.
Reaching a Constitution
If a constitution is not passed before elections and the formation of a new government, Libyans may still struggle to produce one in the aftermath.
The success of a postelection constitutional drafting process will depend on the results. Winning parties may well try to force a constitution advantageous to their interests, and losing parties will likely attempt to disrupt the process, perhaps violently.
Even if violence can be forestalled, reaching a constitution remains a challenge.
It is unclear whether the Constitutional Drafting Assembly is still a valid body that can draft the constitution, what an alternative drafting and ratification process would be, and who would have the authority to amend the procedures.
The UN Support Mission and the international community will have to make difficult choices when deciding whether to confer legitimacy to a poorly defined process that competing parties are likely to contest.
Regardless of whether a constitution is in place to determine the authority of the president and parliament over the military, Ministry of Interior, and intelligence apparatus and the appointments for these bodies, the structure of the security sector will likely remain largely undefined.
Moreover, if a new government seeks to dismantle existing local militias in favor of a national apparatus—which would be necessary to produce a unified security sector—it remains unclear how powerful militias could be persuaded or forced to disarm and dissolve themselves.
Such an initiative would, at the very least, require agreements between Libya’s most powerful militias. Whether the ongoing Cairo talks can produce such an arrangement remains to be seen.
Rather than a consolidated and robustly redefined security sector, a new government may be forced to bid for the support of existing militias vis-à-vis patronage networks and payments without forcing them to disband—not dissimilar to the parallel security structures and paramilitary systems that failed to consolidate Libya’s security sector in years past.
There is little if any indication that a new government will be more successful in this endeavor than its predecessors.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Elections in Libya, if they take place, are a gamble. Libyans need new elections to produce a competent and electorally legitimate government that the international community can support in navigating the myriad challenges the country faces.
The current competing governments—including the UN-recognized government—all suffer from legitimacy crises. The longer Libya goes without elections, the worse the political vacuum will become and the more precarious the economic situation will be, leading to the further, and perhaps permanent, collapse of central governance in the country.
That said, elections themselves present a major risk. Libya’s 2014 elections heightened tensions and were the triggering mechanism for the country’s current conflict.
Rushing into Libya’s next elections before a durable constitution is completed may result in even more violence. Parameters of power will not be established, and, as such, the stakes will be high and the competition fierce.
And even if important pre-election steps are taken, multiple actors will not hesitate to use force to attain greater standing ahead of elections, inhibit voting to sway the results, prevent elections if they fear they will lose, and secure a victory or mitigate a loss after results come in.
If presidential and parliamentary elections are held, not only will each stage of the electoral process present Libya with daunting challenges and risks, but the period after the elections will also be highly fraught. Most potential electoral outcomes have a strong chance of precipitating a new, more violent phase of the conflict, and, even if large-scale violence is averted, Libya’s most difficult steps still lie ahead.
If Libya’s elections go smoothly, they should not be regarded as a success in and of themselves. In a best-case scenario, they will offer a modicum of credibility to a new government upon which success can, but will not necessarily, be built.
It is vital that countries supporting the UN Support Mission in Libya’s efforts approach Libya’s elections with this sober outlook.
Alexander A. Decina is an Amman-based analyst and Boren Fellow focused on conflicts throughout the Middle East and North Africa with particular attention to factional dynamics, security and political developments, and diplomatic efforts in Libya and Syria. A Middle East and North Africa consultant, he conducts predictive and diagnostic analysis on conflicts across the region for private-sector clientele.
Darine El Hage is a regional program manager for North Africa at USIP’s Center for Middle East and Africa based in Tunis, Tunisia.
Nathaniel L. Wilson is a program officer covering Libya for USIP, leading its programming in rule of law and local reconciliation peacebuilding initiatives.