Will 2024 finally see elections in Libya?

The postponement of elections in Libya comes against a backdrop of serious human rights violations, in particular the poor management of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers ©Shutterstock

Discussions on the electoral process, led by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), regained momentum early this year despite growing public frustration, persistent political division, and a worrying human rights situation.

Libyan citizens have not participated in parliamentary or presidential elections since 2014, but 2024 could prove pivotal. Ending Libya's decade-long stalemate and forming a unified government is a race against time, as UNSMIL's mandate will end in October. The need for rival factions to negotiate is a top priority for the UN special envoy Abdulaye Bathily.

Yet the first weeks of the year brought renewed optimism with the first phase of voter registration for the municipal elections. At the summit of the African Union High-Level Committee on Libya in February, the UN and various national and regional actors called for speeding up the peace and reconciliation process in the country.

Struggles over oil profits stall Libyan development and political progress.

The renewed discussions on the electoral calendar are taking place in the context of growing public discontent. The start of the new year was marked by protests that led to the complete closure of Libya's largest oil field, El-Sharara. Libya's economy heavily relies on oil production, making up to 60 per cent of its GDP, yet citizens see little benefit as profits fail to translate into development. Accusations of misallocated funds and corruption plague the National Oil Corporation (NOC), while the Central Bank of Libya (CBL) faces criticism for lacking transparency. Political actors exacerbate tensions by targeting oilfields and disrupting peace efforts. Despite UN-backed initiatives for elections, progress remains elusive due to fragmented political institutions and international interference. The upcoming five-party meeting to address electoral laws faces resistance, risking the failure of Libya's democratic transition.

While the initiative garners support from Western governments, it faces significant challenges, with the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU) rejecting the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) electoral laws. This rejection, coupled with the GNU's potential withdrawal from discussions, poses a severe threat to the success of Libya's electoral process. If left unaddressed, this stance risks undermining the entire premise of holding elections in the country.

The postponement of elections in Libya occurs against a backdrop of severe human rights abuses documented by various organisations that have highlighted alarming violations carried out by militias.

The postponement of elections in Libya occurs against a backdrop of severe human rights abuses documented by various organisations such as the Libyan Anti-torture Network and Human Rights Watch, who have highlighted alarming violations carried out by militias. These abuses include crackdowns on civic work, indefinite detention in inhumane and degrading conditions, forced labour, torture, and extrajudicial killings, often perpetrated by militia groups with total impunity, as well as a pushback of thousands of migrants by the EU-funded Libyan Coast Guard. The domestic landscape is characterised by armed power struggles, where marginalised actors become increasingly hostile. Civilians, including 120,000 Internally Displaced People, bear the brunt of these hostilities.

The absence of accountability exacerbates feelings of injustice, making reconciliation elusive. A draft law for reconciliation, criticised by UNSMIL for its vagueness and lack of victim representation, highlights the unwillingness of those in power to facilitate the transitional process. Without addressing victims' centrality and establishing precise mechanisms for documentation and investigation, impunity will persist, eroding trust in Libya's democratisation efforts and risking further violence.

Libya's race to break the political deadlock

Elections in Libya are still far off, but efforts are underway to establish a dialogue between the rival governments in Tripoli in the west and Tobruk in the east and break the political deadlock cemented for years.

As the UNSMIL's mandate nears its October conclusion, securing the participation of all stakeholders in negotiations is paramount. Despite this pressure, recent developments offer glimmers of hope, including the initiation of voter registration for municipal council elections and calls from domestic and regional actors for an accelerated peace process, as evidenced by the African Union High-Level Committee summit in Brazzaville, Congo, in February.

However, challenges persist, exemplified by the criticism from the UN Special Envoy regarding a new national reconciliation bill drafted without consultation with civil society organisations and victims. This bill, lacking clarity and inclusivity, reflects authorities' reluctance to ensure a smooth transition, leaving the General Commission for Justice and Reconciliation with limited capabilities.

While barely two months separate us from the highly anticipated National Reconciliation Conference in Sirte this April, uncertainty remains prevalent, and various pressing issues remain unresolved, notably the investigations into the Derna dam disaster, the management of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, and questions of development and social justice.

Author: Tesnim Grira, Master's student of International Relations at the University of Tunis el Manar and intern with the Libya programme at the OMCT