Will municipal elections breathe new life into Libya's political process?

So far, 2024 has been defined by electoral upheavals that reflect public dissatisfaction with the status quo and mainstream politics. It remains to be seen whether Libya's upcoming municipal elections can help the country rid itself of its own status quo and make way for a new political class.

This year is the biggest election year in history, and perhaps the most significant litmus test for democracy in the post-war era. Recent elections in Europe have seen incumbents lose by a landslide to challengers and centrist parties lose ground to fringe parties, particularly the far right, reflecting deep public discontent towards the status quo.

Meanwhile, in Tunisia, the presidential elections slated for October continue to evolve in an uncertain political landscape, five years after Kais Saied – a political outsider who campaigned on an anti-establishment platform – swept to power and overhauled the country's system of governance. The U.S. presidential elections slated for November are also leaving observers on edge, with recent polls suggesting that President Biden might not be able to secure his re-election.

Significantly, this election season unfolds against a backdrop of multiple global crises and a fraying world order. The war in Gaza persists, there is a growing humanitarian crisis in Sudan, and the protracted war between Russia and Ukraine continues to influence global alliances. Additionally, the southern Mediterranean is grappling with a migration crisis that places immense pressure on bordering nations, as evidenced by recent crises at Libya's northwestern and southern borders.

Libya, though not at the forefront, is fundamentally linked to these events. Its proximity to these crises means it is both affected by and influential upon the broader geopolitical landscape. This can be seen in the recent uptick in Russia's military footprint in Libya, the ongoing struggle for influence between Russia and the U.S. in Libya, China's attempts to play a greater role in Libya's energy landscape, and how new migration routes through Libya might impact U.S. border politics.

The Libyan public caught between desire for change and perennial disenfranchisement

In January 2024, the High National Elections Commission (HNEC) announced the start of municipal elections, implementing Law No. 20 of 2023 by the House of Representatives (HOR), which transferred the authority for conducting municipal elections from the Central Committee for Local Elections to HNEC.

From January to June this year, the HNEC was unable to implement the elections due to political obstructionism and a lack in funding that forced the commission to change its plan of holding nationwide municipal elections on a single voting day to grouping municipalities under different categories in order to proceed with a phased approach.

The registration process for the first group of 60 municipalities — covering 31 in the western region, 17 in the southern region, and 12 in the eastern region — has officially begun. The registration period was extended twice, with the second extension period expected to end on July 13, and about 162,000 people registering to vote, with women making up just 26%.

Notably, the municipal elections scheduled for 2024 are the first democratic milestone for Libyans since the failure of national presidential and parliamentary elections, which were supposed to be held on December 24, 2021, according to the preliminary roadmap issued by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF).

The 2021 elections saw significant popular engagement and political momentum, evidenced by the unexpectedly high numbers of registered voters (reaching 2.8 million despite many challenges to voter registration) and candidates (99 for the presidential elections alone), but ultimately fell victim to conflicting interests.

Since the failure of the national elections, questions have arisen about the chances of any future democratic experiments succeeding in Libya. Specifically, it remains unclear whether Libyans — who faced violence at polling stations in the 2014 elections and were shortchanged by their leaders and the international community in 2021 — will want to register and go to polling centres again.

Challenges and opportunities brought by municipal elections

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