The Libyan National Congressional Elections, which took place on July 7th, confounded the expectations of many who assumed that -- with so little time and experience -- Libya could not possibly hope to hold free, fair elections.
On Election Day, polling stations were brimming with excited voters and -- despite security concerns -- voting went smoothly across most of the country, with international observers issuing positive statements.
There were a number of serious disruptions in the Eastern region where federalists, intent on creating leverage for their own demands, attacked polling stations and prevented voting material from being distributed. However, the majority was still able to cast their votes at a later stage.
Final results have not yet been released, but partial ones trickling out from Libya's High National Election Commission (HNEC) show that in the race for the 80 seats assigned to political entities in the 200-seat National Congress, Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance (NFA) is taking the lead.
NFA appears to be head and shoulders ahead of other parties in a number of constituencies, with the two main Islamist parties trailing behind. NFA’s success is mainly attributed to having Jibril at its helm, as he earned a great deal of trust and respect among the Libyan population for his role garnering international support for the rebels during the Libyan Revolution. As a member of the former regime, and hailing from one of Libya’s largest tribes, he's also perceived as having the support of Gaddafi loyalists.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party and Abdul Hakim Belhaj’s Nation Party fared far worse than expected. This mainly stems from the fact that Libyans are suspicious of parties whose funding and ideology comes from outside of Libya (namely Egypt, Saudi and Qatar).
Libya is a conservative Sunni Muslim country, but with no history of religious political parties and a society where religion is a much more private affair -- unlike its closest neighbors Tunisia and Egypt. In addition, Libyans reject the idea of electing politicians who will tell them how to live their lives. However, once the allegiances of the 120 individual candidates are revealed, the Islamist parties may experience some gains.
Voter turnout was a healthy 65% and, since there haven't been widespread reports of foul play, the National Congress looks to have earned the legitimacy to guide Libya through its next set of challenges.
However, because Libya has no history of political parties or elections, there is a huge lack of awareness among Libyan voters -- and indeed the candidates themselves -- about how to decide whom to vote for. As a result, most Libyans voted based on the reputation of party figureheads such as Jibril or Belhaj, or based on personal, tribal or familial connections.
Most voters I spoke to could distinguish between loosely grouped ‘Islamist’ and ‘secular’ parties, but had little idea about which candidates would specifically be representing them for a particular party, and couldn’t answer simple questions about their favored party’s vision, values or beliefs.
Indeed, having watched numerous televised hustings, it was clear that many individual and party candidates had no idea themselves. However, this lack of experience has been made up for with an abundance of enthusiasm and determination. While lack of awareness means the road ahead for the National Congress will have many bumps and turns, this should not take away from the fact that Libya’s first elections in over forty years have been a success against all odds.