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Libya’s Elusive Elections: Will 2023 Be the Year for Elections?

Addison Emig Headshot

2023 is a year for elections across Africa—could this include elections in Libya? The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Libya and Head of the United National Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Abdoulaye Bathily, stated elections can and should occur this year. Yet Libya’s complicated history with elections has many experts and analysts doubtful these elections will materialize. As it stands now, there are numerous paths elections could take. This article looks at developments in 2023 and considers five potential paths for elections.

Under UN guidance, presidential and parliamentary elections were set to occur in Libya on December 24, 2021. However, on December 21, 2021, the High National Elections Commission dissolved Libya’s electoral committees and announced the indefinite postponement of these elections. The postponement resulted from disagreements about holding elections and a failure to reach a consensus regarding the electoral framework. 

Armed groups mobilizing in Tripoli in the days before the election resulted in major security concerns. There were disputes over candidate eligibility, controversy surrounding the election laws, and disputes over the eventual powers of both parliament and the president. 

Today, elections have yet to occur, and the myriad of issues surrounding them still need to be solved. 

The UN-recognized Government of National Unity (GNU) governs western Libya, while the opposition Government of National Salvation (GNS) controls the east. 

Despite setbacks, 2023 has seen numerous developments intended to move progress toward elections forward. The House of Representatives (HoR) and High Council of State (HCS), competing legislative bodies, passed a constitutional amendment meant to provide the basis for elections amidst much controversy on February 7 and March 2, respectively. The amendment does not address the issues of candidate eligibility, nor does it provide a timeline for elections. Of note, 55 of the 135 members of the HCS boycotted the vote and contested its eligibility, alleging that the quorum was not met. Nothing has come of their claims. Following this amendment, the HoR and HCS nominated members for a “6+6 committee” to draft electoral laws and handle these contentious issues. After roughly 2 months of talks, they reached a tentative agreement on draft laws. 

Despite this agreement, the key issues surrounding elections remain contested. United Nations envoy Bathily describes the law as containing “serious loopholes and technical shortcomings,” including a lack of mechanisms to ensure compliance regarding rules about nationality and military affiliations. The laws also require a new interim government to be formed to hold the elections. Neither Speaker of the HoR Aguila Saleh, Chairman of the HCS Khaled al-Meshri (replaced Aug. 6), nor GNU Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh have signed the electoral laws as of July 31, indicating continued disagreements over the provisions included. 

On the international front, Bathily announced to the UN Security Council in February his plan to form a High-Level Steering Panel for Libya to bring together stakeholders from all sectors of Libya. He aims to enable “the organization and holding of presidential and legislative elections in 2023.” The UN Security Council released a presidential statement endorsing the plan shortly after Bathily’s announcement. Since the plan’s announcement in February, Bathily has made no major moves five months later—instead allowing the Libyan 6+6 process to take the lead. Several experts have expressed criticism of this approach, concerned it is too similar to the failed 2021 approach and is vulnerable to hijacking from Libyan elites and foreign powers. 

Despite this year’s developments, the future of elections in Libya remains uncertain. There are numerous possible paths elections could take in the coming months:

Potential Path 1: Successful elections occur. Though it appears highly unlikely, there remains the possibility that leaders can reach a consensus on electoral laws and can hold credible elections successfully. Successful elections would put the country on the path to national reconciliation. A unified government could address the problems of corruption, shrinking civil society, and proliferation of militias Libya faces. 

Potential Path 2: Elections are postponed again. Many experts believe leaders will likely postpone elections again as contentious issues remain unresolved. Elections would mean the end of the mandate for the leaders of the HoR, HCS, and GNU, whom have shown no interest in giving up power. The fact that neither Saleh, al-Meshri, nor Dbeibeh have signed the laws confirms this point. The lack of consensus on the key issues from 2021 could also indicate a future postponement. Additionally, Bathily and many experts have expressed concern about forming a new interim government leading to efforts to make elections fail and prolong its own time in power. A new government could easily use any ongoing disagreements to further delay elections. 

Potential Path 3: Elections occur but are considered illegitimate or disputed. Corruption is widespread in Libya, especially among the political class. Many Libyans regard political leaders with suspicion and doubt elections would be free, fair, or legitimate. The widespread disagreements about electoral laws set the stage for unhappy participants to challenge the legitimacy of elections or dispute unfavorable results. Additionally, Dbeibeh and warlord Khalifa Haftar are engaging in ongoing, semi-secretive talks, which hints that they may establish a power-sharing agreement. This could allow them to shape elections in their favor, potentially creating perceptions of being illegitimate and corrupt. Illegitimate or disputed elections would hamper the ability of the elected government to govern and unify Libya. It could result in continued divisions within the country or an escalation of conflict. 

Potential Path 4: Elections occur, but nothing changes. Numerous experts believe that should elections occur, they would be unable to resolve any of Libya’s issues. The people in power now may be able to recreate their power through elections, reproducing the same networks of power seen today. Libya’s political infrastructure is weak and civil society is being curtailed. The process of drafting laws and planning elections is not free, fair, or inclusive of women, youth, and minorities. It is in the hands of those currently holding power who want to maintain their position. Elections could be held, but they may further entrench the current elites and lead to no changes in society and governance. 

Potential Path 5: Violence escalates, and open conflict begins again. The proliferation of militias across Libya and deep divisions between political leaders keep tensions high and the threat of renewed conflict alive. Violence could escalate around elections in one of two ways. First, with armed support, a political leader could at any moment decide they are fed up with the political stalemate and try to grab power through fighting instead of elections. This was seen in August 2022 when Fathi Bashagha, the GNS prime minister at the time, tried to seize Tripoli by force. Because rival leaders all have armed forces loyal to them, such a move could quickly descend into widespread fighting. Second, displeasure with the results of elections could result in a losing candidate militarily challenging the winner. While the draft laws say candidates cannot be actively involved with an armed group while they run, they say nothing about returning to an armed position after elections. A losing candidate could return to their affiliated militias and mobilize a force to attack the new government, resulting in a drawn-out conflict. 

As conditions stand, any of these paths are possible. Bathily’s claim of elections in 2023 does not look promising, but the year is not over yet. While many in the international community are watching and hoping to influence the process, it is ultimately up to those in Libya to determine the fate of Libya’s elusive elections. 

Addison Emig was the Staff Intern with the Stafford Capacity Building Internship at the Wilson Center Africa Program for the Summer 2023 term.

The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center’s Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States.

About the Author

Addison Emig Headshot

Addison Emig

Former Staff Assistant Intern
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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more