Libya election: In Tripoli high hopes, turnout and expectations

Turnout was high in the first post-Qaddafi Libya election today, with voters eager to help start building a new regime.

Manu Brabo/AP
Libyan men hold election ID cards and ink-stained fingers as they celebrate election day in Tripoli.

When Fathi Triki went to vote this morning at a school near his house in Tripoli’s old city, he made sure to bring along his young son, Taha.

“I want to show him what voting is,” he says. “Because now it’s going to be part of our future.”

Today voters across Libya went to polls in their country’s first election in over four decades, a key step toward building democracy following last year’s overthrow of Muammer Qaddafi.

Election officials described turnout as high among the roughly 80 percent of eligible voters who registered ahead of today’s election – a dramatic leap into participatory democracy after Mr. Qaddafi’s top-down rule.

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Many Libyans hope today’s vote will also help solve problems he left behind by creating a leadership with a democratic mandate to take action on political change.

“We need better infrastructure, better education, better healthcare,” says Mohamed Badri, the owner of a café where Mr. Triki went after voting. “Qaddafi left our young people with nothing.”

The 200-member General National Congress voted today is to create an temporary government to replace the interim cabinet appointed last year by the National Transitional Council (NTC).

From one man, to one vote

After seizing power in 1969, Qaddafi banned political parties and ended elections in favor of jamahiriya: theoretical rule by popular committees that usually amounted to rule by Qaddafi.

Scores of political parties have appeared recently in hues from Islamist to leftist, with 142 parties approved by electoral officials to run along with 2,502 independent candidates.

Many voters, however, say their main criteria are competence and character.

“I think many voted essentially for individuals,” Mr. Badri says. “I voted for a party – I won’t say which one – because I know their candidates in this district are cultured.”

Nearby, 21 year-old student Ebtihaj Qoruba was strolling with her aunt and three friends toward Martyr’s Square, Tripoli’s main plaza. She, too, voted for a party primarily on the strength of its local candidates.

“Also, the party respects God,” she says. “I strongly feel that Islam should be the main source of the constitution.”

Patriotic carnival

Martyrs Square (known as Green Square under Qaddafi) today was a carnival of patriotism. Men chanted under a sea of flags, “By soul, by blood, I shed blood for you oh my country!” Cars circled, horns blared. A young man in shorts and T-shirt pranced merrily through the traffic crying, “Allahu Akbar!”

Elsewhere, however, nostalgia lingers for what some consider the relative security of Qaddafi’s rule.

“Qaddafi at least kept this place stable,” says Reda Ali, a fruit vendor in Abu Salim, a rough Tripoli district that was among the last to fall to anti-Qaddafi forces. “I don’t know who these new people are.”

Meanwhile, some in eastern Libya have grumbled at what they portray as Tripoli’s undue clout. The western Tripolitania region gets 102 congressional seats, while the less populous regions of Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) and Fezzan (the desert south) get 60 and 38 respectively.

In recent days armed men briefly closed eastern oil ports to protest that arrangement. On Friday an electoral commission helicopter was fired on near Benghazi, Libya’s eastern second city, killing an electoral worker and forcing the craft to land.

“Libyan should be equals, and that means equal seats,” says Tawfik El Hassi, a high school science teacher from the eastern city of Qorina who fought against Qaddafi's forces last year. “But I’m against federalism; we need a single Libya.”

Apparently to sooth tempers, the NTC ruled on Thursday that the new congress will no longer appoint a committee to appoint a constitution, as had been planned. Instead, Libyans will vote on it – elections date as yet unknown.

Final results of today’s election are not expected until later this month. Some observers have speculated that Islamists could score well, as in Tunisia and Egypt.

For Mr. Triki, in Tripoli’s old city, such questions are secondary to the task of building a democratic system.

“We’ll probably need a second and third election to know what people really want,’ he says. “For now, we’re still building state institutions.”

Asked how it felt to vote at last, he spoke for multitudes: “Happy, happy, happy!”

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