TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya’s first national election in a generation was designed to heal the divisions laid bare by the revolt that toppled Muammar Gaddafi, but bureaucratic bottlenecks could derail the vote and push the country deeper into chaos.
The July 7 election, for a 200-member national assembly which will draft a new constitution, offers Libya the chance to choose legitimate leaders capable of uniting the country for the first time since Gaddafi’s downfall and death last year.
But while the bloodshed that accompanied the end of his 42 years in power has receded, blunders in organizing the election could touch off the rivalries that lie just beneath the surface.
Tribes in the desert continue to fight each other, rivalry simmers between regions and cities, Islamists and secularists eye each other with suspicion, and armed militias pursue their own narrow interests at the point of a gun.
Against this backdrop, the Higher National Election Commission announced on Sunday it was pushing the vote back by 18 days because of logistical and technical issues.
On a visit to the commission’s headquarters, it is easy to see why keeping the original date was impossible.
Each time one of the 130 people working to prepare the election wants to make a telephone call, they face a problem: the electoral commission headquarters has only two functioning landlines.
Like so much in the new Libya, workers on the commission are driven by goodwill and energy, and at the same time stymied by a machinery of state which does not work.
Nuri al-Abbar, the tired-looking 52-year-old former lawyer who heads the commission, said given the obstacles and the lack of official support, it was remarkable his staff had even got as far as they have.
“We have been an after-thought all along,” Abbar told Reuters in an interview a few days before he had to announce the postponement of the election.
“We have been dealing with so much disorganization, bureaucracy and crossed messages with the government,” he said.
The body given the task of organizing the election works out of a couple of borrowed floors in the interior ministry building in the capital, Tripoli.
Inside, staff and Arabic-speaking advisors from the United Nations - including some who have worked on elections in post-conflict Iraq - compare notes and logo designs in a busy room strewn with papers and documents.
In one large but basic office, with the air conditioner blasting, sits the commission’s deputy director Emad al-Sayeh. Outside, workmen erecting a metal sign for the commission over the entrance argue over whether it is hanging straight.
Sayeh got the job after his predecessor, al-Sagheer al-Majri, quit not long after the commission was set up in January.
“The pressure and stress of the work has made many on the board resign. It’s just too much,” said Sayeh.
“A transitional government’s foremost duties are to provide security and pave the way for national assembly elections, but it hasn’t been able to do either.”
The biggest problem, he said, is that the commission does not have the resources it needs. When it goes to Libya’s interim leadership, the National Transitional Council (NTC) for help, he said, nobody seems to want to take responsibility.
According to his account, when the commission went to the communications ministry, in charge of the telephone system, to ask for more lines in its office, the government asked who would pay and left the issue unresolved.
A row over television air-time to promote awareness about the election - crucial in a country where most people have no experience of voting -- also illustrates the problem.
“Libyan TV charges us 7,000 Libyan dinars (about $5,500) for a one-hour episode,” said the deputy commission chief. “This should be a free service.”
Security is another worry. At the start of May, a voter registration centre at a Tripoli school had to close after a militia turned up in pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns to demand more representation for militia men.
Election commission officials say they asked the government for protection in mid-May when candidates were being registered - a potential flashpoint in the election process.
“We looked all around us and there was not one person from government security forces looking out for us,” said Abbar, the commission head.
“They didn’t even come to check to see if we were doing something wrong or illegal, or to see if we needed some extra help,” he said.
The government said it was doing everything in its power while maintaining a healthy distance from the commission.
“The government has a committee which meets with the commission twice a week to see what they need and we are trying not to interrupt their work so they remain independent,” Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur told Reuters.
A government spokesman, Nasser al-Manee, said the ministries of defense and interior had a “strategic plan” for polling day.
Driving through Tripoli, it’s hard to believe Libya’s first direct, multi-party election since 1952 is only days away.
There are no campaign posters or flyers, no photos of hopeful candidates on billboards, lamp-posts or store fronts.
Billboards set up by the elections commission a few weeks ago urging people to register and vote are the only outward sign an election is coming.
Political parties themselves cannot launch their campaigns because they still await confirmation that their applications to run have been approved.
“We don’t even know if there will be elections let alone who is running or who we will vote for,” said Siraj Siraj, a Tripoli taxi driver.
Yet for all the problems, progress is being made.
The voter registration drive was a success, with around 2.7 million people, or about 80 percent of eligible voters, putting their name down to participate.
Boxes containing bank ballot papers and indelible ink - used to mark peoples’ fingers so they cannot vote twice - have been delivered from suppliers abroad.
“This is the last batch of election materials to arrive in Libya,” Salem Bin Nahiya, head of operations at the election commission, told Reuters as he inspected the cargo, wrapped in back plastic, at Tripoli International Airport.
Ian Martin, the head of the U.N. mission in Libya, has experienced Libya’s lack of order at first hand. In April, someone threw a bomb at his convoy in the eastern city of Benghazi, though no one was hurt.
He was upbeat about the vote. He said the decision to postpone it was sensible because it would allow more time to prepare candidate lists, print ballot papers and educate voters about what to expect.
“It would be naive not to expect any problems,” he said. “I believe that in general this election, even though it can’t be expected to be without problems, will be successfully carried out.”
Additional reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Writing by Hadeel Al-Shalchi; Editing by Christian Lowe and Jon Boyle