Campaigning for the July 7 elections is heating up and the Tripoli thoroughfares which were once dominated by images of Gaddafi have now been transformed into colourful canvases, where the faces of those hoping to be elected next week peer down at those sitting in traffic below. Some sport winning smiles and flashy clothes in an attempt to look open and approachable; others look stern and serious, presumably hoping to convince voters of their wisdom and importance. These pictures are plastered all over the city, usually accompanied by inspirational yet meaningless slogans such as ‘justice’, ‘equality’ and ‘hope’. Whole swathes of billboards have been occupied by Libya’s biggest political parties promoting themselves and their candidates, as well of course as reminding the public of the big names in their particular party. The airwaves are clogged with endless talk shows and discussions about the elections and as NGOs step up their awareness campaigns and international observers and journalists arrive in town, Libyans are starting to prepare for their first democratic experience in over forty years.
Of the 200 seats up for grabs in the General National Congress, 80 are for political entities and 120 for individual candidates. There are 130 political parties registered; the main ones include the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party, the Nation Party which boasts Ali al-Sallabi and Abdul Hakim Belhaj as its high flyers, Yousef Magariaf’s National Front, and the National Forces Alliance headed by Mahmoud Jibril. These parties are relatively well known and most Libyans know that, broadly speaking, the former two are religious parties, the latter two secular. There are 1202 candidates registered for political entities, 540 of whom are women and 2500 individual candidates registered, only 85 of whom are women.
So how will Libyans decide who to vote for and who will they choose ? The reality is that despite the current noise about elections, many Libyans are still non-the-wiser about what they are actually voting for, let alone who they are going to vote for. When I asked a Libyan friend a few days ago about who she was going to vote for, her response was ‘well I don’t want Belhaj to be president, but I like Jibril so maybe I will vote for him.’ It seems Libyans are finding it hard to escape from Gaddafi’s ‘strong leader’ legacy. They are judging parties based on their patrons rather than on their values, and judging candidates on whether they look the part of a leader or not.
While driving in Tripoli, another friend pointed out a poster and said ‘I think I’m going to vote for him.’ When I asked whether this candidate was standing in his constituency, he had no idea what I was talking about. It would be unrealistic to expect a population that have lived under dictatorial rule for so long to become experts on electoral systems overnight. However, with little over a week to go until the elections take place, the signs are pointing to a chaotic day of voting. Many are still at a loss to know how to choose between different candidates based on photos and slogans alone, and are frustrated by the whole campaigning process. They want to make informed decisions but feel that information isn’t available. Although the HNEC has detailed information about the elections, it doesn’t have details on individual candidates and, as many are actually aligned with political parties, voters are right to be hesitant about choosing blindly.
The environment for these elections is far from perfect and in many ways they will be largely symbolic. Lack of awareness among both voters and candidates means that it is unclear whether the majority of Libyans will share the same vision for Libya’s future as the people that are elected to represent them. Despite this however, it is important that these elections take place now. The perfect environment would take years to develop, and although Libya may be a long way away from becoming a truly democratic society, these elections will mark a new era in Libyan history and a huge step towards the future Libyans fought for in the February 17 Revolution.