Feeble turnout by Libyan voters points to deep disillusionment

Libya held elections today for a constitution-drafting committee that will chart a path for a post-Qaddafi future. Few cared enough to turn out at the polls.

Ismail Zitouny/Reuters
An electoral commission worker helps a visually impaired voter cast his vote at a polling booth in Tripoli, February 20. Libyans headed to the polls on Thursday to elect a body to draft a new constitution, marking a step in the country's transition after the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Abdou Rais was still a teenager in August 2011, when he joined other young men in Tripoli excitedly taking up arms against dictator Muammar Qaddafi. 

Today, Mr. Rais is jobless. This morning, as voting for a constitutional drafting committee began, he was slouched against a wall in Libya's capital, listlessly watching the bustle in the alleys with a pair of friends.

“We young men, we did many things in the revolution, and now we have no work,” he says.

Just three days ago, Libyans celebrated the start of the revolt that toppled Mr. Qaddafi in 2011. But today, as cold wind and rain tossed the strings of flags left over from the festivities, all but a trickle of residents ignored the vote.

“The old city doesn’t care anything for the government,” says Rais, who skipped voting in his neighborhood in Tripoli’s dilapidated medieval core. “People here just need to live.”

Today's elections for a constitutional drafting committee are arguably the first real step toward democracy after more than a year of stagnation. But don’t expect Libyans to get excited. 

For many, the joy felt at dictator Qaddafi's downfall and at elections the following year has steadily dimmed in the face of militia violence, high unemployment, and what Libyans see as their leaders' failure to deliver stability and prosperity. 

Only about 1.1 million of 3.4 million potential voters registered for today’s elections, compared with 2.7 million who registered in 2012 to vote for the General National Congress (GNC), an interim parliament. By late afternoon today, just 360,000 had cast ballots, Reuters reported, citing Libya’s electoral commission.

The low turnout mirrors a broader disillusionment with politics in general. Many Libyans see the GNC as ineffective and resent its decision to extend its mandate, which was due to end on Feb. 7, until the end of 2014.

On Tuesday two militias even threatened to arrest GNC members if the body did not step down within 72 hours. Although such threats often lead to talks and concessions, they highlight the degree to which weapons amount to political sway in Libya – and to which the GNC has become a focus of grievances.

Skipping today’s vote based on politicians’ performance is understandable, but mistaken, says Aref Selim, a hotel manager in Tripoli who voted today.

A slim man with short, gray hair, he arrived at the polling booth at the school opposite his hotel at 9:00 a.m., just as it opened. Afterward he stood outside, beaming with satisfaction.

“Today is about establishing a law to protect our lives, to protect women, and so on,” he said. “It’s even more important than voting for a parliament.”

Libya last adopted a constitution in 1951, after the collapse of Italian colonial rule in World War II. Then, as now, the drafting committee contained 60 members: 20 each from Libya’s three regions. The goal has been to ensure that all regions, regardless of population, get an equal say.

Still, activists from the minority Amazigh and Tebu communities called for constituents to boycott today’s elections on the grounds that guarantees of seats were insufficient to protect their heritage.

Qaddafi scrapped Libya’s 1951 constitution, a move that went hand-in-hand with his repression of dissent and whimsical approach to honoring treaties and contracts. Today Libyans are free to speak their minds, but their government remains outgunned by militias, sometimes outmaneuvered by local leaders, and, thanks to armed takeovers of oil facilities, short on cash.

“I make 800 dinars a month as a soldier; that’s not enough to live on,” says Salem, speaking from behind the wheel of his pickup truck in Tripoli’s old city, where he found himself blocked in a narrow street this morning by another car facing him. To make ends meet, he works delivering goods on the side.

For him, the rationale for voting today was simple. “I want things in Libya to be clear," he says.

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