A renewed push for elections in Libya: Challenges for a peaceful future

Shannon McGarry | Middle East and North Africa Fellow

Image credit: Violaine Martin

While the formation of the GNU has partially resolved some of the problems that hindered Libya’s previous elections, there remain bureaucratic obstacles to ensuring the 2021 elections go ahead as planned. Previous elections ended in a stalemate with the Government of National Accord (GNA) and Libyan National Army (LNA) unwilling to negotiate and a rise in conflict and tensions in the country. GNU allows the election to move forward, separately from the GNA and LNA, with all members of the current government agreeing that they will not be eligible to be elected in the upcoming 2021 December election. While the formerly divided government bureaucracy is theoretically united, the GNU inherited the challenge of restructuring government institutions to enable them to provide essential services, including electricity and water, and address Libya’s rampant corruption and issues with liquidity in the banks.


The GNU’s ultimate hope is to bring reprieve to the Libyan people who are “fed up” with corruption and inadequate services over the past decade as a result of the warring groups within the country. The GNU must ensure this whilst combatting the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and securing vaccinations for its population. The inflated bureaucracy eats away almost one third of the state budget, however, corruption and lack of enforceable accountability will make it difficult to effectively restructure the government institutions.


These bureaucratic issues are exacerbated by Libya’s lack of a constitution. For the elections to go ahead they require a constitutional basis; something which has never existed in Libya. On April 10th a constitutional norm upon which to hold the upcoming elections was agreed upon. This marks major progress from the previous meeting on March 23rd which ended in a deadlock over the issue. However, the rule itself and subsequent final report is yet to be released and even with the norm established it does not establish a full constitution, rather it acts as merely an interim constitutional basis for the upcoming elections. As such, the elections will serve only to produce another new interim government which will act until a full constitution is adopted and approved through a referendum.


Aside from the bureaucratic and constitutional issues, a conducive political and security environment in which voters may safely exercise their democratic rights without intimidation or interference, with stakeholders committing to abiding by its results, is vital to achieving a free, fair and credible election on December 24, 2021. But with militias gaining legitimacy across the state, this seems increasingly unlikely. In response to the LNA’s 2019 offensive against Tripoli, the GNA relied heavily upon militias and Syrian mercenaries to retain the capital, allowing militias to continue to exert political influence throughout Tripoli and compelling media to push their own narrative.


It is virtually impossible that the GNU will be able to completely disarm Libya’s numerous militias by December, instead the GNU must search for alternative measures to restrain the militias in the lead up to the election, however they have offered no statements on how they plan to achieve this. This is exacerbated by the presence of approximately 20,000 foreign fighters in Libya, including Syrians, Turkish, Sudanese and Russians, who arrived as part of the Proxy War. The UN Security Council has called for these groups to withdraw from Libya “without delay”, but as with the disarmament of the militias, this is unlikely to occur by December.


The promise of an election follows the 2020 October ceasefire. While a welcome move towards peace, Human Rights Watch criticised the agreement for lacking a “clear commitment and pathway to accountability for the serious crimes perpetuated”. Achieving national reconciliation in Libya is notoriously difficult due to the decades of feuds, influence of militias, and rampant corruption, all of which are exacerbated by foreign interference and has led to further divisions between Libyans on tribal and regional lines. The GNU has not yet put forward any reconciliation plan, which would likely require the freeing of political prisoners, implementation of transitional justice mechanisms and allow for the return of internally displaced persons. Failure to achieve national reconciliation and justice will be detrimental to lasting peace in Libya and any outcome that the December elections may bring.


The multitude of complicated issues facing the GNU in the lead up to the December election make it increasingly unlikely that the election will be held successfully and lead to a peaceful transition for Libya. While there has been some progress forming a constitutional basis for the election, the inherited bureaucratic division that the newly formed GNU must seek to repair, coupled with the influence of militias, foreign fighters, and the lack of a reconciliation plan, add to the likelihood that the December election will be unsuccessful in instigating a lasting peaceful process and if against all odds it is, the new government will inherit a number of challenges in successfully governing the war torn country.


Shannon McGarry is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.