TRIPOLI Libya's second national election since the 2011 ouster of strongman Muammar Gaddafi will go ahead next week despite growing political chaos, organizational troubles and the prospect of a low turnout.
Dismissing doubts among foreign diplomats that Tripoli could arrange the vote in only a month, election commission head Emad Al-Sayeh told Reuters that preparations for polling on June 25 were coming along well and staff were being trained.
The challenges are daunting. Libya's government and parliament are deadlocked, militias and tribal groups hold sway over parts of the country and a renegade general has launched his own campaign against Islamic militants in the east.
But instead of taking months of preparation as diplomats thought it needed, the election commission opted for a quick vote. Sayeh sounded confident its initiative would pay off.
"The commission has finished the last preparations of the elections," he said, adding that 1,601 polling stations around the country had been readied.
He said there were "positive indications" that the vote would go ahead even in Benghazi, the eastern city where fighting takes place almost daily between forces of renegade Geenral Khalifa Haftar and Islamist militants.
A Western diplomat said the government was adamant the vote should go ahead and noted that voting for a constitutional committee in February went ahead in most areas.
"There will be challenges to open polling stations in some places in the east and south," he said. "The bigger question would be what will happen after the election, whether tensions will ease."
The General National Congress (GNC) assembly decided in February to step down after its initial mandate had ended, bowing to pressure from voters who blame political infighting for Libya's bumpy transition to democracy.
LOW TURNOUT LIKELY
Libya's neighbors and Western partners hope the election will provide a push for state building and help the oil producer overcome some of its deep divisions between Islamists and more moderate forces as well as competing tribes and regions.
Turnout looks like it could be low. Over 1.5 million voters have registered, roughly half of the 2.8 million registered in July 2012 in Libya's first free election in more than 40 years.
The commission has tightened registration rules by requiring voters to show a national identification number. Many Libyans in the south and the east do not have one because insecurity there there has hampered the development of such basic state services.
Some people have also avoided getting a state identity card because it would make it harder to exploit the country's chaos and claim several state salaries. Clamping down on such fraud was one of the state's reasons for introducing the number.
Western diplomats hope the vote will ease tensions in the OPEC oil producer but some fear it could produce yet another interim assembly. Legal experts have still not finished working out a new constitution for the post-Gaddafi political system.
The new parliament will made up again of 200 seats but be called House of Representatives, replacing the current name GNC linked by many Libyans with the country's stalemate.
Thirty-two seats are allocated for women, said Sayeh. Only 10,087 voters have been registered abroad, reflecting the lack of time to organize voting in embassies.
Sayeh said a total of 1,628 candidates will compete, around thousand less than at the last vote. Some candidates have started putting up posters but, given the short time available, there has been no real election campaign like in 2012.
The vote will also be marred by a boycott of the Amazigh, or Berber, minority that demands a stronger say in the body drafting the constitution. The Amazigh have seized oil installations in the past to press for their demands.
(The story removes reference to main constituencies in fifth para)
(Editing by Ulf Laessing and Tom Heneghan)