Khaled Zeo

 The breakdown of talks in Geneva as well as Berlin held under the auspices of the UN comes after a series of failures on the part of Libyan stakeholders to find common ground. This has been seen in regard to a series of significant issues, including the format of the now delayed December elections, and the formation of a cohesive government in the new Libyan state.

Eradicating conflict and reconciling differences are prerequisites for conducting parliamentary elections, let alone governing the country successfully in the years to come. As past mediating efforts have highlighted, this would only be attainable if the primary interests of all key players in Libyan society were represented. Therein lies an important dilemma. A decentralized form of government that encourages the ever-greater and direct participation of citizens in politics also introduces a great many opportunities for disagreement and conflict. Avoiding the latter as much as possible is of paramount importance in a Libya which is more divided today than ever before.

Political theory instructs that the electoral and governance systems of the new Libyan state should not be competitive but rather conciliatory in terms of their procedures and power structure. First-past- the-post—or “the winner takes all”—electoral rules belong to the former category, and select members of parliament and executive leaders with a simple majority. This means that in an extreme situation, 50% of the votes plus one is sufficient to win a constituency or a presidential race held between two candidates. This can leave almost half of all voters who participated in the given race disenfranchised.

Proportional electoral rules would be much more beneficial in a country like Libya. Proportional systems allocate seats in parliament in proportion to a given party’s share of total votes. What this means is that even the smallest minority groups can send representatives to the parliamentary assembly if they reach a certain minimum threshold in elections.

In the executive branch of government, having a single executive hold an overbearing amount of power in comparison to all other office-holders is similarly discouraged. Combined with a unitary style of governance, such a leader can pave the way towards authoritarianism. Furthermore, as federalism was abolished and a unitary system was introduced in Libya in 1963, the government and tribal authorities became less connected with each other, spurring dissatisfaction. The end result of this other extreme might be the same: conflict. If not between tribes, then a broad-based opposition of Libyans against the primary stakeholders in government.

While greater representation is beneficial in the legislative arm of government, decentralizing power in the executive branch increases the number of potential conflict dyads. In a power-sharing model, with more opportunities to disagree on substantive policy matters, the opportunities for deadlock and conflict are also more numerous. This would be especially concerning in Libya where a broad-based consensus on primary issues such as taxation and security, as well as various localized interests are currently lacking. Therefore, power-sharing should be encouraged with certain caveats.

In a presidential system, one way of sharing power is by installing a prime minister alongside the president. Alternatively, a shadow government based on the British model would also give an opportunity to those currently not in government to exercise regular oversight over policy matters. Positions in a shadow government mirror those of the actively serving cabinet. Shadow ministers can play an important role in articulating policy positions that are alternative to those put forth by the government. If such alternative positions become salient and feature prominently in public discussions, the government might be encouraged to integrate them in their strategies. Importantly, the shadow government does not have a right to veto policies and thereby bring governance to a halt.

Employing an independent guarantor such as a constitutional monarch is a less frequently promoted but all the more effective method of encouraging conciliatory attitudes without risking deadlock. A truly impartial figurehead with non-executive responsibilities can serve as a source of unity and reason to all citizens, regardless of political affiliation. They can serve as an additional link between particular interest groups in society and the government without intervening in the latter’s work.

A balance must be found between the two ends of the spectrum, between a high degree of representation and peaceful governmental relations, as Libya requires both security as well as satisfaction with and approval of the new state. If not combinedly, then the two models might be implemented in succession to each other.

Libya needs to go through a foundational period of political and social progress in order to make strides towards elections, now planned for June, and what would eventually become a truly democratic state. This is a process that cannot happen overnight. In this initial period, security and stability are of paramount importance.  Only security and broad-based cooperation can guarantee that the most immediate concerns of the country are addressed, without opportunities for tribal differences and deadlocks to derail progress. With centralized government answering to a proportionally elected legislature, and a monarch facilitating stability and the protection of minority interests, Libya would strike a good balance between centralization and representation.

A more decentralized model could be introduced in Libya’s new constitution as an end goal. Rather than declaring a specific date, a deadline to implement decentralization could be determined by economic and social markers, such as when certain economic milestones and social development were reached. The monarch could stand independently of incumbent governments as a guarantor that this reform would indeed be implemented.

Promoting unity and reducing opportunities for conflict are incompatible priorities. And yet, they both represent crucial factors in Libya’s stabilization and long-term development. Prioritizing security first with important constitutional safeguards in place and introducing farther-reaching laws of decentralization later on might be a way around the conundrum.


Khaled Zeo, a foreign policy analyst and attorney based in Libya practicing in Libya’s High Court.


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