It's not pretty, but Libya is on the road to democracy
TRIPOLI // There is a festive air in this sweltering city as citizens prepare for today's election - the first since the violent fall of Muammar Qaddafi and a clear, if chaotic, sign that the democracy Libyans rallied for last year could be within reach.
In Martyrs' Square in the capital, known as Green Square under Qaddafi's rule, military bands were playing on Thursday, police cars let their sirens wail and horsemen in traditional dress posed for pictures with babies.
"We are so excited about the elections," Ibtissam Bokar, a mother of five, said above the racket. "This is a celebration."
Ms Bokar is registered to vote, as are about 80 per cent of those eligible, although she confessed to confusion about who the parties and candidates were, and what they stood for.
A certain amount of bewilderment is both palpable and understandable among Libyans. They are not electing a government as such, but a 200-seat General National Congress, meant to hold power for only one year.
The seats are divided up rather roughly across the country, since there was neither time nor the political will to conduct an accurate survey of constituencies. Different areas are using different methods in a democratic hodgepodge of first-past-the-post, single non-transferable vote and proportional representation.
Eighty seats are allotted to political entities - coalitions of parties and other groups - while 120 are for individual candidates. In some places voters choose candidates, in others they also pick lists.
Experts acknowledge that the system is unwieldy, with rules written and implemented under time pressure and subject to change. On Thursday, the transitional government abruptly declared that the congress would not appoint a 60-member group to write a constitution, as planned, but that the group would instead be directly elected.
A spokesman also told reporters that the government had decided that Sharia would be the basis of the constitution, and that this would not be subject to referendum.
The transitional government's moves might have been an attempt to quell debate between Islamists and secularists, and mollify eastern Libyan movements that have complained that the country's west will dominate the congress.
The Wadi Ahmar movement yesterday forced the closure of five oil facilities in eastern Libya in protest over eastern areas not being granted more seats in the congress.
Outside Benghazi yesterday, a helicopter carrying voting material for the elections was forced to make an emergency landing after being struck by anti-aircraft fire. One person was injured but the identity of the attackers was not immediately known.
The array of parties and candidates would be overwhelming for anyone, let alone a country of first-time voters. According to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, there are 2,501 independent candidates and 142 political entities.
Some have been enthusiastic about wooing voters. The Justice and Development bloc, many of whose members have strong ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, have run a dynamic campaign with candidates leading teams of flag-waving youngsters on door-knocking expeditions. Earlier in the week, in Benghazi, young men and women bounded up and down stairs in apartment blocks to introduce themselves and their party, which they say calls for a moderate religious politics using Islam as a "reference" for legislation.
Ahmed bin Shetwas, a 25-year-old student, said that he sought an Islamist government "because the experience worked in Egypt and Turkey and Tunis".
Candidates acknowledge that the movement's institutional knowledge and political organisation has given them a head-start in Libya's brief campaign period. But, long isolated from its neighbours by Qaddafi's monomaniacal leadership, a victory here for an explicitly Islamist group is not a foregone conclusion.
Libya's population is more homogeneously conservative and Sunni Muslim than neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, both of which overthrew autocratic leaders last year and have voted in moderate Islamist governments. But some feel suspicious of the Brotherhood-linked party.
"The Brotherhood are not qualified to lead the country," said Mohammed Fadel, a 33-year-old oil engineer.
"They have no experience in politics. We want a middle ground," Mr Fadel said. He added that he planned to vote for the National Forces Alliance, which is endorsed by the former prime minister Mahmoud Jibril, who cannot run for election because he held office last year.
Mr Jibril's coalition is seen both as more secular than Justice and Development, and than Al Wattan, or Homeland, group. Al Wattan is led by Abdelhakim Belhaj, a powerful figure in post-revolutionary security who stepped down from his post as the head of the Tripoli military council to enter the political fray.
Hopes are high among Libyans, who long ago became disenchanted with their transitional rulers, that a new government will address problems of security and infrastructure. But the government will rule over a shattered country where thousands of militia men who fought last year still dominate many aspects of life, acting largely with impunity.
A report released this week by Amnesty International found that hundreds of militias had refused to disarm and that they posed a constant threat to human rights and the rule of law. Fighting in the south and the west of the country between tribes, militias and security forces has killed dozens in recent weeks and security problems could mar today's vote.
Reform of government institutions has barely begun and education and healthcare, priorities for most people, are unlikely to improve as rapidly as people would like.
"A big challenge is going to be management of expectations," said Carlo Binda of the National Democratic Institute in Tripoli.
"It hasn't been the most elegant process," he said of the vote, adding that he thought most Libyans did not fully understand the mechanics of the election. "But I think people are largely forgiving that there will be mistakes along the way."
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Reuters