The United States has proposed a staggered Libyan presidential election ending in the autumn of 2022, in a bid to salvage a roadmap for polls in December resisted by the transitional government and other Libyan factions, according to a document obtained by the Africa Report.
The US proposal, presented to the other P3+2 countries (France, Britain, Germany and Italy), would have the Libyans commit to a first round of presidential elections on December 24, along with parliamentary elections, and then a second and final round on September 15, 2022.
The transitional prime minister, Abdel Hamid al-Dabaiba, has publicly insisted that he wants to hold elections on time, although the UN-mediated roadmap would bar him and other office holders from running.
But privately, he has resisted the idea and has pushed for an extension since his appointment last February in in a UN-mediated dialogue, officials told The Africa Report.
A spokesman for the prime minister refused to comment. Others, including members of the State Council in Tripoli, have openly opposed elections in December.
Parliament has yet to pass an electoral law while negotiations in the UN-sponsored political forum that agreed the roadmap and selected Dabaiba have stalled, partly due to members switching their allegiance to the prime minister after he came to power.
During a meeting with French president Emmanuel Macron in June, Dabaiba was forthright in his opposition to elections in December, two officials with knowledge of the talks said. He has also relayed the same message to other countries, although not directly to the US, which had insisted on sticking to schedule.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his Libyan counterpart Najlaa al-Mangoush that Dabaiba should stop sending “mixed messages,” a Libyan official with knowledge of the June 17 call said.
Back to square one
Failure to hold elections could bring the country back to its status quo before the outbreak of the 2019 war, when the eastern general Khalifa Haftar marched on the capital Tripoli to unseat the UN-recognized government.
Haftar has hinted at war if the elections are not held, and has signalled that backing the creation of a parallel government in the east could be an option.
The US proposal seen by The Africa Report notes opposition to holding elections on December 24—although it doesn’t name the opponents—and suggests that after the first round, the remaining candidates should form in competing lists of presidents, vice presidents and deputy presidents, if they jointly won at least 10 percent the vote in the first round.
They would have to commit to monthly televised debates addressing the economy, pandemic and other challenges. The US suggested the Dabaiba be allowed to run in the election, but that he, and any other office holder, would have to quit if he makes it to the second round.
Parliament would then have a month to decide on a new interim executive. It also suggested an election in September 22 for a second chamber of parliament, and a constitutional referendum by the end of 2022.
Candidates above age of 21 can run in the first round, but the new parliament would prepare a constitutional basis before the second round, according to the document.
The proposal is opposed by several countries including France, which insists on simultaneous elections on December 24. Egypt would also like to see elections on time, in part because it believes political Islamists would stand the most to lose if a poll were held now, officials said.
But most countries acknowledge that it is doubtful that elections, which could upend the status quo, would be held on December 24 without concerted international pressure.
“The current actors have a vested interest in not holding elections on time,” said Claudia Gazzini, the International Crisis Group’s Libya analyst. “Dabaiba, like all government members, pays lip service to the election, but is known to believe that the transition requires a transitional government in power for longer than nine months and believing that elections in the current climate is destabilising.”
Despite the mutual recriminations between Dabaiba, Haftar and the eastern head of parliament Aguileh Saleh, all three politicians could benefit from not holding an election.
While some in western Libya have warned that a direct vote could bring Haftar or Saif al-Qaddafi into power, Haftar still gains from the status quo, as does Saleh.
Both Saleh and Haftar have insisted on elections and are likely presidential candidates, but an electoral law could bar military men such as Haftar from running, and Saleh risks losing both a presidential election and his seat in parliament.
Haftar “has ample opportunity to exploit a situation where he can say: ‘I wanted presidential elections but the others were against it, and therefore I no longer recognise the government. It allows him to exert more pressure,” said Wolfram Lacher, a Libya authority with the German SWP think tank.
Dabaiba has complained that his hands are tied so long as parliament refuses to adopt a budget, but privately he and his supporters have indicated that they could live with monthly allocations overseen by the Central Bank governor Saddiq al-Kabir.
The latter’s position appeared in peril just a few months ago, but he has again emerged as one of the country’s most powerful people. The absence of a budget could mean payments to Haftar’s Libyan National Army could be conducted with little transparency or blowback in western Libya, one Libyan official told The Africa Report.
Some have questioned the wisdom of focusing on elections while much of the groundwork that led to the country’s divisions and war remained.
In the east, Haftar openly refuses to acknowledge the authority of an unelected prime minister, while his LNA—more a collection of militias than an army—operates without any government oversight.
In the west, Dabaiba inherited a web of powerful militias that compete with one another and flout his authority. Both are backed by foreign powers on the ground– Turkey and its Syrian militiamen are ensconced in the west, while Russia has deployed advanced fighter and jets and hundreds of mercenaries with the Wagner group in the east and south.
“We’re not going to allow international pressure to burn the country,” said a person familiar with Dabaiba’s thinking, of holding elections on December 24 with the current landscape. Others argue that postponing a vote might end up doing just that.