A man shows his voter card inside the polling station in Tripoli, Libya Nov. 8.

How ballots can win over bullets

Too many of today’s violent conflicts start with election disputes. The world is trying to ensure Libya’s first presidential election doesn’t go that way.

Take a tour of today’s world trouble spots and one thread runs through many of them: disputed elections.

Ethiopia’s violent civil war started a year ago after a regional election in Tigray was deemed unconstitutional by the central government.

Myanmar’s military took power in February on claims that its favored political party did not really lose an election last November that international observers deemed largely fair. More than 1,000 people have since been killed.

In Belarus, a dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, rigged an August 2020 election in his favor and then cracked down hard on protesters who knew otherwise. When the European Union imposed sanctions, he began to bring thousands of Middle East migrants into Belarus to cross the border into the EU.

Then, of course, there is the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by thousands of Americans who, without evidence, claimed the 2020 presidential vote count was fraudulent. The violence that day has left a scar on U.S. democracy that’s only partly healed.

These examples of fighting over elections help explain why the United Nations and the EU are trying hard to ensure that Libya, which plans to hold it first presidential election in its history on Dec. 24, is credible and inclusive.

After two decades of division and war following the 2011 downfall of dictator Muammar Qaddafi, the country is at a turning point, its future hinging on an election conducted with democratic values such as openness and equality that might result in a legitimate government.

“On the day of the polls, the big question will be whether or not ... the integrity of the vote will be questioned,” Anas El Gomati, director of the Sadeq Institute, a Libya-based think tank, told Al Jazeera.

On Monday, millions of Libyans began to collect their voter cards while candidates began to line up to run in either the presidential contest or an election for parliament slated for January. Also, the U.N. coordinator for Libya, Raisedon Zenenga, met with civil society groups to discuss “the need to secure acceptance of the [election] results by all actors.”

Much of the foreign support is focused on helping the nation’s electoral commission in technical details of issuing ballots and counting them fairly. But the European Centre for Electoral Support is also providing Libya with expertise in “peace mediation” in electoral processes.

Libya’s unity after the elections depends on whether the main factions in the east and west of the North African country accept the results. Also critical is whether meddling Russia and Turkey will withdraw their support for thousands of mercenaries.

Credible elections are both a collective experience in civic equality and an exercise in the individual agency of citizens to define shared values. Libya does not have much history of that. It has plenty of negative models in other countries. Yet its people seem eager to vote, an act of trust in the election’s integrity and, if the vote count is accepted, trust in the integrity of Libya as a country itself.

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